Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Social Studies

In the next few weeks, we get the opportunity to hire a new social studies teacher. This process has led me to reflect on what a 21st century middle school social studies teacher should bring to the table. After years of learning facts and figures in history classes, most have evolved to having students focus on true enduring understanding of concepts that have spiraled through time. It seems though like we are truly at a point where the best teachers in this area are serving as tour guides each day. To get kids to love history, it seems to me that they have to truly experience the places and people that were the driving forces behind the moments that shaped our thinking. The students also have to feel as though that by accumulating this passion, they will be able to think and feel in a different way than those that choose not explore history. To do this, two things seem essential. The teacher must be able to process the multitude of resources available and efficiently get them in the hands of their students. Being timely with pictures, documents, and videos is the only acceptable path forward. The second piece that seems to be growing in importance is the teachers ability to link students to history experts around the globe through e-mail, Skype, and instant messaging. Students must realize that they do have access to the best thinkers on topics that they grow passionate about. Feeding these connections makes history alive in the flat world. Those certainly seem like big shoes to fill for our next teacher, but I wouldn't set the bar any lower because this is what my students' deserve.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Nine Weeks to Go

I'm never one to begin the countdown, and I am hoping that the title of this post doesn't feel like I have started the clock. I bring up the 45 day mark only because there is so much that I would still like to do before June 1. There are a few students that I need to talk with about how much I believe in them, and how I am expecting big things out of them in high school. There are a ton of teachers to praise for all the little things that they do each day. There are events to soak in where we honor our students for their academic dedication, and most importantly, there are chances to play in the hall, on the field, and in classrooms which allows me to bring my energy to the building and put me in the flow.

Nine weeks to go also means that I can start focusing on some of my favorite things outside of school. The Spring Classics in cycling, and the quest for the league title for Arsenal as well as the conclusion to the Champions League. March Madness is almost over, and baseball season is just warming up, so there is this sliver of time to soak in my European sports fixes.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Testing Time

As April approaches, it is testing time in Missouri. I've been thinking about what outcomes truly matter from these tests. I'm not working in a place where high-stakes testing really means high-stakes. No one is losing their jobs over the scores. The school isn't being closed down, and even if there is some push back from the community, it will fade quickly. There are only two positive outcomes that I could come up with.

The tests provide us with information to celebrate about a few individual students that will be deemed proficient for the first time in their school career. I always hope for more students to break through this achievement ceiling, but in reality, it is only a few each year. The second, and probably the most important outcome from our state testing, is when we are successful in continuing the trend upward, we then create the space that we need to develop the rest of the programming for the whole child. Good test scores allow us to spend time planning events and expeditions. It allows us even more time to focus on individual student needs beyond math and communication arts. It allows us the chance to be creative and take new risks.

When success is deemed too low, we begin to have more forced mandates and programming. We shine a brighter light on our school from central office and the community, and we create stress in our staff that impacts performance. So for the next few weeks, let's change our lens about testing, and put the results in perspective, but also let's realize that all of our lives will be in better balance if we squeeze the best out of our students on these tests.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spring Break Learning

I am spending a lot of time these days thinking about learning in a different way. Background knowledge, experiences, and seeing new things have always been important parts of learning, but having a five-year old at home who is learning so much these days has shed a whole new light on the importance of interacting with things to learn. We really haven't tapped into this brand of learning the way we should have over the last few decades. Sure there have had field trips and reports about summer vacation, but learning as exploration has truly slipped into the central tenants of my philosophy on learning. It seems so common sense to write, but I look around at all of our structures and traditions, and so many of them involve removing experience and removed the wow and wonder that I saw in the eyes of my daughter at the aquarium during spring break. In order to ignite passion and a desire to make a difference, we really need to get students to get the importance of local, but push and push for global experiences.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bringing the Ideas Together

Bringing the Ideas Together

After returning from a conference, it is really easy to slip back into management routine. There are calls to return, fire drills to facilitate, and a hundred little things to check on, but I am trying to really keep up the pressure on myself to make meaning of my three days of learning in Phoenix. If I had to shelf all of my learning, I would start in the section on instructional leadership. I really try to avoid all of the tangental sessions, and really dig into finding ways that I can support my teaching staff.

Over the past few years as fMRI technology has emerged as a source of information for educators, I have delayed my growth in the area of brain research. I'm not sure why I have resisted in this area, but I feel like this is an area of potential growth of me especially in the area of practical applications in the classroom. Rick Smith's session led me to a list of things that should be considered if a classroom is applying best practices in brain-based learning. They included: pacing, metaccognition, energy, music, movement, lighting, procedures, guessing, relevance, usual times, and laughter. There is a depth to each of these topics, but there is incredible value for teachers to find a way to maximize the quality use of each of these in their classroom. It is always great to see Rick Smith use many of these as he presents. Some of the best suggestion that he provided including taking a break at least every 12 minutes for students to internalize their learning from the last chunk of time. This could include summarizing the learning, placing a title on that section of learning, or naming the highlights of the learning. This can be done through sharing with partners, drawing , writing about it, sharing it with the teacher or even silently. He also suggest the strategies of compare this chunk of learning to something in the student's locker, bedroom or in their neighborhood. This higher level thinking seems to cement learning. He also points to the highly effective strategies of translating the previous learning for someone younger than the student. I was also encouraged to hear him say that teachers should try to make some of these changes with their favorite class first as they may have a little more energy to give in these classes to try someone new. The changes would ultimate be a time savings once fully integrated.

Having been a fan of the Art and Science of Teaching by Robert Marzano for some time, it was good for me to hear him present his material visually during his keynote on Sunday. He reminded me to go back to the ten questions that teachers should be asking as they build instruction, and I need to push myself to view these questions through UbD lens. He also spoke about how many top educational research have found consensus on a variety of things. They may use different jargon, but the best parts of educational instruction have emerged, and we should be focused on institutionalizing them. He also spoke about the importance of feedback and building a system of supervision that allows for multiple streams of information going to teachers. I appreciated his reinforcement on the use of instructional rounds as a method of learning and thinking together as a community. I have been involved with learning walks for some time now, but instructional rounds brings a new sense of structure and purpose to looking at the things that we deem important. Principals are contributing to cultural neglect when they tell folks "good job" or "well done" as real feedback both positive and that of a more critical slant have to be a part of "what we do here." An appendage to this feedback cycle was the monologue that Jerry Valentine provided on the Instructional Practices Inventory. This process helps school develop a process for having conversation on data on student engagement. There is a real sense that if we measure it matter, and if we have meaningful conversation about what we measure, then it matters even more. I hope to use this work on measuring engagement while expanding it to measure things like quality technology integration, learning taking place through reading and writing across the curriculum, and use of the best practices associated with cooperative learning.

When I think of myself as a change agent for education, I tend to believe that I am fairly progressive in my thinking. This includes my thinking on grading, use of technology in the classroom, and using student's passions to drive product differentiation, but spending time with Spence Rogers made me feel conservative and in the center of the box. Spence Rogers and the people at Peak Learning Systems have grabbed a hold of a number of a number of teachers in very tough environments and turned them into superstars. The idea is to focus on learning and understanding and delay judgment through grading and traditional feedback for as long as possible. They also propose a number of strategies to maximize engagement and provide a safe environment for learning and risk taking.

Some of the specifics include the concept of deflected questions. He proposes asking students, "How do you think the rest of the class would answer this questions?", or "What should I tell my next hour about this topic?" He pressed teachers to think about this question. "If you were teaching your students as though they were your own children, how different would your lessons be?" Much of his thinking came from the idea of mastery learning. He pressed teachers not to take work until it met the standard, to call a timeout on a test if students don't get something to reteach on the spot (football analogy). One specific was a resource binder where students could walk across the room to look at information that they had stored away for the test. They could then return to the test to continue their thinking. This would move more tests away from recall and into place where kids having access to knowledge didn't matter as they still needed to use the knowledge to apply and create.

He continued by talking about the term testing and how it led to judgment when real-life testing is about getting feedback to make change, test the oil, test the soup, and test drive a car. None of these are about assignment letter grades. Schools should delay judgment as long as possible to maximize motivation. He also offered the idea that for those students that don't do practice at home very well that the teacher should get them his or her completed copy of the homework to take home so that maybe they can just copy what is on the page. This seemed like a good starting point for the most reluctant learner.

The final two ideas that he brought to the table were about response journals. He proposed that the big questions for each class should be responded to in writing by every students in the class, even if this means doing a gallery walk for some to gather additional ideas. He said that it worth having each student do this writing as it breeds learning. Finally, he talked about the research on concept learning, and how it takes 28 mentions of a topic over 3 weeks for a true depth of understanding to occur. He suggests teachers present multiple concepts over a longer period to cement the learning. Without this type of method, he suggests that previous background knowledge will dictate success, and the results could have been predicted at the pretest. This depth should allow for the elimination of review days and easy (level 2) questions on tests.

The final learning took place from the melding of two session. One was on effective professional development and other on integrating ethics into the purpose of the school. I have spent the better part of a year trying to decide what questions to ask during my first staff meeting in the fall. I have gathered good ideas and inspiration material to share, but I continue to come back to the question, "What is our purpose?" This simple question is one of complexity it seems as common mission and focus often times sits in the outer two rings of the target and not in the bullseye. Certainly being on target is better than missing wide left, but the pinpoint focus is essential for excellent. This was the context of my thinking during these two sessions. The first was from the group Institute for Global Ethics. They talked about how to infuse ethical literacy into the classroom. Much of this is certainly done in my current and new building through the PBIS process, but this conversation pushed me to find ways to push ethics into context. Not unlike teaching reading and writing in the content area, I believe that we should be pushing for ways to bring ethics into our lessons and conversations as often as possible. Doing so would help us to meet one of our primary roles which is building active, engaged, and proficient citizens.

The second session was about building a layered, meaningful and focused professional development progam. I have also been spending time thinking about this effort at my new school, and I continue to feel confident and overwhelmed by the thought of pulling this off. What I gleaned from the session was that focus was essential. Finding three things to be great at is so much better than being good at ten things. There is also an element of finding time for teachers to explore their own passions. The 20% time continues to resonant strong in my core. Finally, the idea of staff members taking control of their own growth through a professional learning network seems essential in this environment. The focused resources available to meet the individual needs of our staff are available and ready on the web. It is essential that we get people plugged into this network. I am hoping that everyone can find and name ten new people outside the walls of the district that influence their work. Doing something in this realm would provide a multiplying effect for our overall staff development.

Did anyone actually make it to the end of this post? No more books for blog posts. I promise...for now.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Convention Wrap-up

Phoenix served as a great host for the NASSP convention, beautiful weather and great convention facility minus the wi-fi issues. Our presentation was well received. We spoke about our journey with standards-based grading, and there were a number of people working through the same issues, but it was clear that throughout the country, many people recognize the evils of legacy grading practices that demotivate kids. After our Friday morning presentation, we were free to learn, and there were a number of great speakers. Below are some highlights and links.

Institute for Global Ethics

This session outlined the importance of building a common set of ethics and values in a school. It was a different slant on character education and PBIS, but the key seemed to be infusing the ethics into teachable places in the curriculum 2 out of 5 stars

Spence Rogers

This session providing a host of great out of the box teaching ideas. He tried to boil down the purpose of learning and give people the courage to break the "rules" for the good of kids. His teaching design ideas were brain-based and logical. 4 out of 5 stars

Ben Carson

Dr. Carson was the morning keynote on Saturday morning. He spoke passionately about his story about how education has driven his success. He also talked about his work to give back to schools. He get do a little too much talking about "the good old days" of schooling. 3.5 out of 5 stars

Rick Smith

This session was a repeat session for me as I had seen Rick a few years back, but he is a wonderful presenter. He shared a huge number of great ideas for shaping teaching and getting more from kids. 5 out of 5 stars

Buckhorn High School

Funny story here. I was chatting with someone on Twitter who was at the conference. She convinced me to come to her session, so I did. She was a superstar, but had a boat anchor of a presentation. Fun to feel the power of Twitter. 1 out of 5 stars

Jerry Valentine

I knew that Dr. Valentine is a great research and a very traditional lecturer, but I went to the session anyway because I wanted to learn more about the Instructional Practices Inventory. Got what I wanted and got out, but it was in one of the rooms with wi-fi in the convention center. 2 out of 5 stars

Robert Marzano

He is self-proclaimed bad keynote, but he is brilliant and the information that he shares grows in power each time that I hear him. It was great to have him support feedback through instructional rounds. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wandering Into Adventure

I'm in Phoenix, and I was completely lost today. There was a perfect storm of things that occurred to get me lost in a city that I have never been, but it happened. I don't like being lost, but there are times when it doesn't bother me. It wasn't as if I didn't have any water, or I was due to be somewhere, so I took it as an adventure.

There I was walking on Camelback Road in the middle of a residential neighborhood looking for a baseball stadium that was 100 blocks away. In the process though, I pulled an orange off of an orange tree along the road and ate it. I admired the beautiful grass that some people have in their yards. I thought about how great the warmth of the sun was, and how great it was to walk without pain after the marathon.

I think that many of our moments at school as principals could fit into this metaphor. Each day we wander off into a place of uncertainty, where we don't know the way, and it can be fun, exciting, and even a place for growth. Tomorrow will be more routine. We will do our presentation, go to a few sessions, and finish the day with friends, but when the memories are all sewn up for the weekend, it may be today that we remember because failure breeds memories, and failure breeds learning.

I hope that you have an opportunity to just go and wander into something unplanned, and I hope that it doesn't go perfect, so that an adventure will be made for you to remember.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On The Road

There is nothing like walking through classrooms, talking with teachers, and hanging with students in the lunchroom to get a feel for the climate and needs of a building. Being a principal is a people intensive journey. It means phone calls, messages, smiles, and a listening ear. Without these tools, we are just managers of the education industrial complex.

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to lead from the road. It wasn't the same, but it was still highly effective. I had a video chat with a teacher that I am presenting with on Friday. I talked to two teachers candidates on my cell phone after texting them to get a return phone call. I answered a number of e-mails using my Blackberry. I even had time to read two articles on effective reading strategies (one that I sent to my wife for use with my five year old daughter). Finally, I met with our technology guru about our vision for the next 18 months and created a Google doc so it can be shared with others.

Even though I will be in Phoenix the next four days, it will be nice not to return to a huge pile of work that in the past would have gathered during time away from the building. Certainly, the time that I spend with people is key to the success of my school, but an absence isn't what it used to be. Once the final touches are on our presentation for @NASSP10, I will post for everyone. The presentation outlines our journey with standards-based grading.

See ya next week. Chat with you 24-hours a day from anywhere in the world.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Making the Call

One of the things about being a principal that never gets easier is calling teachers that didn't get a job in your school. There is no doubt that, for at least that moment, you have sucked the positive energy that they have for serving student right out of them. You can hear the vacuum on the other end of the phone, and I always pray that the action is temporary as we need every educator full of life and vigor in our journey to find success for kids. Unfortunately, I have many more of these calls to make in the next few weeks as hiring season is in full swing. I'll be taking a break from hiring later this week to head to Phoenix for the NASSP conference. Live blogging from Phoenix later in the week or follow me @ideaguy42 on Twitter for other highlights from the conference.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Spring is in the Air

Every year around March 1 a new element enters the middle school landscape. It is the final group of eighth graders that are going to figure out the concept of middle school relationships. It is cute, drama-filled, and predictable.

Let me paint the picture. For three years, there have been two single-gendered tables in the cafeteria side-by-side with zero, I mean zero interaction between the boys and girls. Many of these students have band and accelerated math together, but it was as if the Berlin Wall existed between their tables. Suddenly, March 1 arrives, and it is like new children have hatched. The giggle volume increases. The food gets tossed on the other table. The looks and whispers are obvious. Young love is in the air. Many of these kids will look back at March 1 of their eighth grade year and remember the name of the first person that they held hands with, attempted to say loving things to, and possibly even a first kiss.

By the way, dealing with all of this is the easy part. The hard part is keeping them focused on learning, representing our school well through testing, and preparing them to take on the high school. I'm glad that spring has arrived.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

10 Years as an Assistant Principal

I have having one of those morning that feels like the quiet before the storm, and it has given me some time to think, catch up on some reading, and reflect on ten years as an assistant principal. I have no way of measuring or figuring out how many discipline conversations that I have had in a decade. Yesterday was a heavy day, and I talked to 30 students about a variety of things big and small, but my biggest revelation of the week is that I have supervised over 5000 lunch periods. All of them had more than 150 students and some had 300 plus students. It is an amazing number, and it climbs again at 11:11 a.m. this morning.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Three Thoughts

1. Today is the first day of interviewing for science candidates. I'm excited for the people sitting on both sides of the table. It is always tough to sit in front of ten people and put your best foot forward, but these experiences begin to shape your foundation as a teacher and learner. Candidates get to articulate what really matters to them and showcase their passion, two beautiful things about living in a democracy. On the other side, it is exciting to meet a new teammate for the first time and think about how this person can help you grow and be value added to the school. The pressure on this side comes from knowing that you could be making a one million dollar decision. (If a teacher stays for 20-30 years, then the outlay in salary and benefits is well over a million dollars.)

2. I read this NY Times article earlier in the week about touch and its importance to teacher/student interaction.
The article was oddly counter-intuitive. I know the power of touch. I know that it is easy to goof this up in a school setting, but I do believe that we have to try to allow the power of touch to out way our fears.

3. Malcolm Gladwell talks about how it take 10,000 hours at a minimum to become an "expert" at something. Even if you count student teaching and teachers working 10 hours a day, every day of their first years of teaching, it would almost be Christmas of a teacher's third year before kids would have someone working with them at this "expert" level. Not sure what to do with this thought, but it probably means greater amounts of hands-on experience is essential at the college level. It also traps new teachers in the struggle about how to get experience teaching, if everyone only hires people with experience.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Laser-like Focus

After having almost a year to think about what I want to be at the true core of my work as a principal, I am ready to roll it out.

Parallel Thought: Part of what I am sure that you will learn about me through this blog is my philosophy about the truth. I have a humble respect for the truth as I believe that none of us have a large enough perspective about life to actually know the truth about anything, but our role on the earth is to pursue truth through learning each day, so what I know today won't be as good as what I know tomorrow, but I going to make my foundation as strong as I can without placing my head in the sand to add a leg to the foundation.

I have decided to make my shift to the principalship on a DIME.

1. Do no harm...
Every place that you enter new has a tradition and history that is filled with excellent structures, ideas and people, and the worst thing that I could do is take actions that stops the positive momentum. This doesn't mean been inactive, quiet, or passive, but it means having the respect for progress, growth, and hard work that has come before me.

2. Innovation is king...
It is no longer an option to have a school with teachers or students that aren't risk-takers and innovators. Our creativity, design-thinking, and big picture sense will be the tie-breakers in a world of great competition. Every new idea must be explored, cultivated, and encouraged as it relates to teachers helping kids grow. This doesn't mean lack of focus, but it means channeled, doable continuous growth.

3. Mindset matters...
After reading the book Mindset by Carol Dweck, I am convinced that we must cultivate a growth mindset in all of our kids. This means that kids truly believe that their hard work with make them smarter, strengthen their brain, and open up new opportunities. The language of the growth mindset should filter through the hall. We have to have kids believe that frustration and failure lie at the beginning of every great success, and that we will support them through failure because we know that they just haven't gotten it, "YET"

4. Excellence is the only option...
Every aspect of what we do should be judged on whether excellence was a part of the input or excellence was the resulting output. It can't be good enough to have a good school. We have to work for a sense of excellence in our curriculum, instruction, assessment, grading, relationships, interactions with parents, public displays of learning, how we treat each other, and even how we do Monday mornings.

Help me part of my professional learning network. I know that I need each of you on this journey.