Friday, June 29, 2012

A Chunk of Our Story

The renaissance of the Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School started ten years ago as the State of Missouri prepared to place the school and the district on provisional accreditation status. The school was a place that housed kids as the neighborhoods crumbled around it. The school seemed destined to be another example of urban decay in Saint Louis. One decade ago, less than 40% of the middle school aged students in the district attended the public schools. Housing prices, local businesses, and a variety of other city services were on the decline. The cities of Maplewood and Richmond Heights appeared to be slipping into the downward spiral urban sprawl. Today, the reality of the Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School is quite different. Our steady, sustainable test score growth speaks loudly about the impact that the renewed Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School is making on kids, families, and our community.

The foundation of our sustainable growth has been the dedication to both the programming and the culture of the school as seen in the diagram. Schools that focus on one above the other or one without the other are destined to create a false sense of growth that will crumble with new leadership, teacher turnover, or slight changes to the system. In the area of culture, our success comes from building a compelling education vision that is embraced by students, teachers, and families. This clear understanding of our mission as a school allows for innovation, communication, collaboration, and partnerships at new levels of intensity.

Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School is also dedicated to the metaphor of learning of School as Expedition, and this drives all of our planning and decision-making. Our School as Expedition parallels in many ways the Expeditionary Learning model that can be found in schools throughout the country. For us, expeditionary learning means that our kids are outside of the classroom learning about 25% of the school year. This includes time outside on our campus, outside in the community, and learning opportunities outside of the community. These opportunities build a skeleton of context that all of our learning can rest. Unlike many middle schools, our students rarely ask “why” about projects and assignments as they have experienced the context for the learning. Another incredible outcome of this model is its ability to close the expectations gap and opportunity gap simultaneously with the achievement gap. We believe that only through working on each of these gaps in tandem can we not only help our students of poverty reach the front doors of the university, but also create the opportunity for them to have a successful experience and graduate from university. Too often in the past, we have prepared kids for university academically, but the cultural and experiential divide was too great for them to mange while on campus.

Another essential elements of our cultural turnaround comes from a dedication to continuous improvement throughout the learning community. This continuous improvement has come through a cultural shift to deprivatized practice that includes teachers visiting other teachers classrooms, unit tuning, lesson and project critique as well as making time for collaboration throughout the day a non-negotiable in our master schedule. The results of have been a more energized teaching staff that is excited about taking positive risks for kids.

Along with the fostering of a healthy culture in the school, the past decade has been about building a strong program for excellent student learning. We have realized that learning is a dynamic process that when done well results in increases in scholarship, leadership, citizenship, and stewardship. This is seen in our test scores, but also in a variety of other ways including the excellent student work and projects in our students’ electronic portfolios. Developing leadership, citizenship, scholarship, and stewardship has become the cornerstones of the excellent programming that we provide students. Our definition of success has expanded to truly embrace the growth in all four of our cornerstones. In order to make this complex web of learning possible, we are relentless about engaging community partners that can supplement the knowledge and expertise of our teachers as well as provide students with new avenues in which to build their skills as citizens and leaders.

In an environment of innovation and growth, there is no time available for inefficiency, and our teachers embrace the professional development, resources, and time and space provided to help them grow their toolbox of best practices. Teachers at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School also realize that the best professional development is now available on a global scale and on a continuous basis. This has led to teachers to search for teachers and educators outside the building to collaborate with by using social media outlets including blogs and Twitter. Our teachers are building extensive professional learning networks to share, grow, and collaborate.

Finally, our learning community has embraced the essential nature of our cornerstone of stewardship. We believe that twenty years from our now our planet will spend much of its time taking about food, water, and energy, and we are dedicated to our students being leaders in this conversation. Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School is known as a regional and national leader in the area of urban sustainability. This recognition stems from our work in four areas of learning. These include our raised bed gardens on campus that produce food for our cafeteria, area restaurants, and the local farmers’ market. Our students are involved in all areas of the process from seed to table in this area of study. We also have about 100,000 honeybees on our campus that produce 20 gallons of honey annually. Students are involved with maintaining the hives, extracting the honey, and cleaning and preparing the honey, so that it can be sold as a variety of products include wax, lip balm, soap, and jars of honey throughout the school year by our small business known as Bee MRH.

Students are also involved with learning about and caring for our chickens. The district has about two-dozen chickens for students to grow more comfortable in the conversations surrounding food and food production. This is also the case for our work with the recirculating aquaponics project that has our students studying how fish and plants can live in a symbiotic relationship. Each of these projects is designed to build deep curricular knowledge, foster new partnerships, and return the knowledge to the community. These results are being seen with greater frequency as we remain dedicated to being a Green School with a sustainable mission.   

Core Area 2- Personalizing the School Environment

Maplewood Richmond Heights in its journey toward excellence in the last ten years has worked to place the students in the center of the learning environment. This has required our teachers to move into the role of facilitator as students engaging in challenging, long-term projects of excellence. These projects allow students a variety of real-life experiences that foster essential skills such as communication, collaboration, and presentation skills. Our students have voice. They are involved in a variety of classes, committees and opportunities where they are able to speak about the things that they are passionate about, develop solutions, and truly make a difference in our school and community.

These opportunities include our adventure club, dog club, and citizenship advisory panel as well as students participating in professional development conferences as speakers, panelists and presenters. Middle school students are looking to be heard, and they are looking for ways to harness their passion for life in a positive way. Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School has embraced this energy. One way to view the learning outcomes in this area is to explore our YouTube Channel, Here you can see how our students embrace tough issues and work to raise awareness for students, families, and our community.

In order to be successful in personalizing the environment, it is essential to hire teachers that are missional to the whole child. No longer can excellent schools afford to have teachers that know their subject, but can’t also focus on the whole child. Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School has built its capacity in this area over the last decade, moving away from teachers that lacked the empathy for the struggles of our students in poverty as well as the overall needs of students at the middle level. This shift has brought fresh energy and greater achievement to the building. Teachers have been involved with creating vehicles for connection with students like a daily advisory period and a monthly town hall meeting to celebrate hard work and dedication to character. Teachers have also grown their capacity to teach and guide social and emotional development in real-time ways. Teachers feel comfortable talking with students about choices and decision-making at the moment that things occur.

This type of learning and growth is essential for growing leaders and citizens that can self-correct, show restraint, and lead by example. All of these efforts to personalize the environment and place kids in the center of the school have led to a school that feels like a place of learning, where respect is high, bullying is low, and quality is the norm. None of this could be said about the environment ten years ago. Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School now has close to 80% of all middle school aged students attending the school, student achievement is nearing 70% proficiency in both math and communication arts on a very rigorous state test in Missouri, and the excellent student work that we are able to share with parents through our bi-annual student-led conferences now fills our electronic portfolios. One of the best ways to see our learning and the beauty of the learning is to visit our Flickr site that showcases the images of our school from the last year. It can be found at:

Core Area 3- Making Learning Personal: Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

Now more than ever, students don’t have to rely on the classroom teacher to be the primary source for information and ideas. Schools are definitely in a shift from being the dispenser of knowledge to helping students curate information and building their skills to analyze and synthesize knowledge. At no point in time have students been armed with more information (on their computers, phones, and televisions) that allows for them to make their learning personal. This shift hasn’t been fully realized by most schools, but schools like Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School realized that high levels of technology integration were essential to building the 21st Century Learner. Each of our students has a school assigned laptop that they are able use both at home and at school.

Teaching in this personalized environment has brought many benefits to our students. They have been able to have continuous access to the daily learning objectives and resources for each of their classes as our full curriculum is available on-line for students. This curriculum was built using the Understanding by Design philosophy that begin with the end in mind, so that students and teachers can personalize a path to success for all students that allows their understanding of enduring understanding and essential question to blossom along with the knowledge and skills of each unit.

Students at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School are also challenged to work to an excellent level on high-level projects that require multiple iterations to achieve a level of proficiency necessary to impress a public audience outside of the school. It has been amazing to watch the quality of work rise when the final audience isn’t the teacher’s desk. In addition, our students have real-life experiences through a variety of expeditionary learning opportunities each year. This year, our seventh-grade students completed an art integration and community research project as they travelled across town on the light-rail system. They explored the neighborhoods along the way, interviewing riders, and documenting the trip and art installations along the way using digital cameras. These same students travelled to the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont as a capstone experience to study bio-diversity and salamander habitats. Along with these trips students spent time learning on multiple college campuses as well as completing many service learning opportunities including one at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers with our partners at the Audubon Society.

Technology integration has led to major growth spikes for our students over the five years of having a 1:1 environment. Differentiation of product is possible at a greater rate when students are creating video and audio representations of their learning using technology. Our students have become incredible videographers, and this is seen clearly through our final reflection project known as the Defining Moment project where students are writing a personal narrative that they use as a voice-over to a original movie of their story. This is the type of high-level learning and outcomes that allow us to remain true to our definition of success that is much larger than test scores.

Over this period of renaissance, we have expanded the learning opportunities for students. Students are receiving more highly focus literacy services as needed that extends beyond the reading classroom and into the other subject areas through the use of our instructional coaches. We are providing our struggling math learners with asynchronous ways to practice their computation skills with excellent results. We are providing all of our students’ opportunities to write additional formal essays in communication arts and social studies. Around 80% of students are now receiving high school credit in Algebra something that would have never been possible at the beginning of this journey. Students have incredible new ways to explore their passions in learning with electives such as: Citizen Science, Sustainability, Creative Writing, Current Events to go along with our incredible arts program that features a middle school jazz band, a middle school acapella choir as well as our art integration specialist that brings art into all areas of our learning.

The fruit of this decade of work has been moving from a near provisional accreditation from the state to being accredited with distinction by the state for our work in the school and district. In addition, Maplewood and Richmond Heights are becoming destination cities for families that are looking to live in a diverse, urban environment with excellent and innovative schools. The population in our schools is growing at a faster than expected rate and the satisfaction of parents is at an all-time high. MRHMS is now a place that is studied as a model for the culture and programming that it provides its students. In the haze of failing schools and systems in decline, Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School had broken out of the pact to be the place in Saint Louis for students and families to experience excellent and know that their students will be prepared for the future.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Singing Out Loud at 40 MPH

There are a few times every year that I get that "runner's high" from an outside adventure. On vacation, I decided to take the challenge of climbing Look Rock Road. I had first seen this challenge when we took kids to the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont in May. During our trip, we took students to the top of Look Rock to see the beautiful vistas of the area, reflect on their trip, and connect with nature in a new way. During the drive to the top, we saw a number of bikers attempting the challenge. One of my teacher said to me, "I bet you wish you were out there on your bike." She spoke the truth. Once I knew that I was returning to that same outdoor playground with my family in June, the planning for the ride began. It would take a lot of things falling into place to allow me the space to make the attempt, but it worked, and about 3:25 p.m. on Wednesday, June 20, I took the first pedal stroke toward the top. The sign in front of me said Look Rock 11 miles. It was 11 miles uphill, and I was excited about the opportunity. I remembered that the first three miles were the most difficult part, both because of the grade and the need to get myself in a riding rhythm. There is no riding uphill for three miles in Saint Louis let alone 11 miles. The first three miles were hard, but I was in a surprising good rhythm going about 7.6 mph the entire first section. My legs were burning, but I knew that there was some relief ahead. The center section has a downhill and flat section coupled with some climbing. This section was a nice mix as I prepared for the last section. The last section was rated as highly as the first three miles, and it was definitely hard. Both of these section were rated as Cat. 3 climbs. Tough stuff for us flat landers in Saint Louis. As I approached the top, I remembered a number of landmarks from my trip in May that propelled me to the top. 10.41 miles complete in 58 minutes and 12 seconds. I took a few pictures, stretched, and then started the decent. I bombed the descent. I hadn't had an opportunity to descent at that speed for that long since Independence Pass during the Ride of the Rockies. I spent most of the descent at 35 mph with a top speed of 40.1 mph. During the descent, I started singing at the top of my lungs. It was an incredible liberating moment that is hard to put into words. I have always loved my bicycle, and it is moments like this that have me dedicated to providing these opportunities to kids by getting them outside. I wish that each of you could been there when it was over to see that look and feel that energy that was oozing from me.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Food, Water, and Energy

Schools are doing a disservice to students if they aren't talking in a significant way about the future issues surround food, water, and energy. These three topics will be the biggest political footballs over the next fifty years, and we need students that are ready to develop and implement solutions on these topics. Videos like the one below are a great start to the conversation.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fail More; Fail Faster

Returning from micon12, the summer conference hosted by the Martin Institute in Memphis, has led me to synthesize the message of the conference into four words, Fail More, Fail Faster. In education, we have to build opportunity for kids to fall short. The growth and learning that comes from failing are incredible and we can't deny these opportunities for any of our kids. We need to support and structure the failure, but we need to help students embrace it. A recent New York Times article provides these questions for teachers and others to build these skills. 

What is “failure”? What is “success”? Who defines each?

When have you ever failed, by your own definition?

How do you deal with failure?

Can failure be useful? Can you think of examples, from your own life or someone else’s, when it has led to something positive?

How is failure defined and dealt with in your family, your school, the activities you do outside of school, among your friends and in your community? Which of those definitions and responses to failure seem fairest or best to you? Why?

What can be done to avoid failure? Should people try to avoid it?

How can people recover from failure?

How have you been failed by others?

Where do you see failure in society around you?

Beyond ISTE

It is amazing that an entire year has passed since I attended ISTE in Philadelphia last summer. It was a mega-conference that allowed me to meet a number of folks from my professional learning network, attend an incredible Google party, and feel better about the work that my school has been doing surrounding the integration of technology. In the end though, it made little to no impact on my school, and I'm worried about ISTE's overall impact as a conference if it's definition of success is innovating and changing the way that education is done.

I know that the conference will be fun. Friends will see each other, drinks will pour, and sessions may or may not be attended, but I'm not sure that ISTE does a lot to move forward educational innovation. Certainly there are stories of connections, projects, and progress, but antedates aren't part of the silver buckshot needed to move education forward. I wish I was there. It would be fun, but it will be a extra expensive vacation for most in attendance, and I worry about the future of mega-conferences especially one like ISTE that struggles to truly have a voice, mission, and leverage to infect the educational landscape.

I welcome your thoughts about whether ISTE has a larger impact yet to play on the educational landscape. For those in San Diego, enjoy the week. For those of you that can't attend, take the money that you saved make some microloans, donate to a local shelter, notice the invisible people in your community as each of these actions may have greater meaning in the long run.

The Counterculture of Education

Once you have realized that the mainstream of education is not for you, and that you want to build, promote, and enhance the world of education to a new place, a strange thing happens. You slip into the educational counterculture that is called "liberal", "progressive", or other less kind things. Once there, there are new rules of the counterculture, and it feels odd that we are breaking away from rules and standardization to embrace innovation and creativity, only to find a new set of rules. My wise friend, Elizabeth Potts Weinstein, provides some wisdom surrounding this phenomenon in her recent podcast. EPW is a blogger that encourages her listeners to Live Their Truth Daily. For me, listening to these blogs and reading new things are a part of my summer of lateral capacity building. My hope is that fresh ideas will infect my education lens for the new school year ahead. I hope that you take a moment to listen to this link.

The Power of Moving Pictures

 I've spent the better part of 18-months talking to anyone that will listen about the power of images in education, and that we need to define our own success and become our own storyteller-in-chief. This message has taken me around the country, and I hope that it has planted some seeds among teachers and school leaders. This TED-talk brings to a close my cycle with this message at the intensity that it has been a part of my presentations. I would love to teach a class based on classic film, where kids watched great movies for 90 minutes and then talk about them for the next two hours. Dream, Believe. Hope. Schools are changing, but an awesome part of the solution.

Thinking Back- Thinking Forward Part 2

The definition of a successful school has continued to shrink over the last decade for many schools throughout the country. For many, success is measured only in two percentages that are released each summer surrounding student success on state testing in math and communication arts. This is quickly becoming the lone measure of success for school leaders also. Unfortunately, schools caught in this trap of allowing others to define their success are all destined for eventual failure.

As I move forward with my leadership in schools, it will be essential to redefine what success means for our students and schools. In my current role, we have expanded the definition of success to include all four “Cornerstones of Learning.” These cornerstones are scholarship, leadership, citizenship, and stewardship. We believe that building capacity in all of these areas in all students is essential in our new global marketplace. At Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School, we do this through a strong expeditionary learning program, high levels of technology integration, and providing students’ time and space to produce high quality work that has an authentic audience. These opportunities allow students to grow as leaders, citizens and stewards for the community.  Moving forward, I believe that it is essential that I continue to inspire others to look at this work, mold and shape it for their environment, and build sustainable models for school growth around the country.

One of the most powerful merchants of our message around sustainable school growth is the student voice. Students in our learning environment see the benefits, enjoy their time learning, and are ready to tell the world about their experiences. One of my future goals as a school leader is to get the voice of the student deeply engrained in the conversations around the revisioning of education throughout the country. Student stories and insight are essential to healthy schools. In addition to student stories, all members of the learning community must continue to share the stories and images of the learning. Images are powerful to the discourse of education, and social media outlets like Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter, allow the positive stories to flow.

As my experience in leadership continues, I also hope to write, teach, and collaborate in some fresh environments. I have some emerging ideas surrounding authoring a book for school leaders that will spark fresh ideas and provide some lateral capacity building for a new brand of educational innovation. In addition, this could mean teaching at a local college or in a virtual environment. Both of these items remain true to my desire to release the trapped wisdom of education. Finally, on a personal level, I hope that my leadership prepares a school for my daughters to be highly successful. As a school leader, parent, and community member in my school district, my dedication to my local community is buried deep in my mission, and I want my daughters to be creative, innovative leaders of change in their community and beyond.

Thinking Back- Thinking Forward Part 1

I have recently applied to be a Phi Delta Kappa Emerging Leader. I'm not sure if I'm qualified to not, but it was a good process for me to organize my resume, reflection on my work, and put some of my philosophy on paper. 

One of the greatest roles of a school leader is to build a culture of risk-taking and innovation. During my early years as a leader, this was about bringing fresh ideas to the table, but as my appetite for greater innovation grew and I saw the power of unleashing new ideas into the system, it became apparent that my role needed to become someone who fostered a climate of innovation that empowered staff, parents, and students to step forward with ideas. My default answer to ideas became “yes”, and the fruits of this shift are now settling deeper into the core of the school. The mission and norms of the school are now dominated with innovation and risk-taking for kids.

This has led me to serve on a number of work groups that are based on innovating schools including our sustainability learning group, a group that is primed to win a Green Ribbon School award for our extensive work in urban sustainability; the technology integration think tank, a group that is truly harnessing the power of the disruptive nature of technology through the use of video creation, electronic portfolios, and technology-based projects with an authentic audience; and finally, the steering committee for edcampSTL, a professional learning conference that brings the energy of educators to the forefront for an interconnected day of learning.

In addition to these incredible opportunities at school, I have also worked hard to open wide the doors of the school so as to share the trapped wisdom of the learners in this school. Our interconnected world allows us to learn from the best educational thinkers on the planet, and I have challenged my teachers to grow their professional learning networks to allow this to occur. Through the use of Twitter, my blog, Principally Speaking, and Skype conversations with educators throughout the country, I too, have moved from a local educator to a global educator that enters into conversations with dedicated professionals throughout the planet.

It has been an incredible journey for me personally to my current role. I am a first generation college graduate with incredible parents that hid the effects of poverty from me at every turn, so that I could focus on school and learning. They provided me opportunities to play sports and get involved in high school, quietly cultivating my leadership skills from the beginning. I don’t want to waste a second of this opportunity that they provided me, and so this is why school leadership has been at the heart of my work to serve kids for the last 13 years. Serving in this role has allowed me to empower teachers, students, and families to think beyond what is possible.

The schools that I have served have a common thread. They are on a road of sustainable growth. This may not mean flashy one-year gains in test scores, but it means growth over time in academics, teacher growth and innovation, and a community of ideas surrounding all of our kids.