Friday, April 25, 2014

Is it all about asking questions?

I've recently shifted the way that I enter the conversation with my kids about their day of learning. I've started asking different questions. Instead of asking the tired question of, "how was school today?", I've started to ask, "what was one question that you asked today?" In addition, I've added the question, "what made you happy today?" Both of these questions have reframed the tone and contents of our conversations. I often wonder if we are asking the right questions, and whether, there are questions, that if asked at the right time and in the right space, could reshape all that we are.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Kindness Matter

There are so many moments throughout the day when I wished that I was present. I want to be present for the sunrise, and present to hear the birds in the trees. I want to be present for those that are hurting but hiding it well. I want to bear witness to story. I want to find kindness for those that are still learning kindness. I want to breath in peace and breath out grace. I want to watch the sunset and wait for the moon to rise. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Five Sentences

Do you need more than five sentences to describe the next five years of your life? If so, you may be making things more complicated than you should. Try these five sentences on for size, and see if they feel good against your person. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Building a Mission and Vision

As a school district continues on its journey to deeply embed a new vision and mission for the district that pulls us into a new era of learning throughout the district, they should have had an opportunity to look at a number of versions of vision and mission around the country. Most of the statements are dead upon completion. Some because they were designed by too few people and others because they are filled with words and jargon that holds no cultural purpose in the organization. The best ones though seem to be based around three ideas. The first is a recognition that inquiry is central to learning and that all learners, both students and adult, should have the opportunity to grow in a space of inquiry. The second is about innovation. The term innovation is in linguistic overload these days, but at the heart it is about change and ideas. For too long, schools have been places of rules, routines, and repetition, and the school with the best vision and mission statements are saying enough with those 3Rs. Finally, the best living vision and mission statements are about impact. Excellent forward-thinking schools want to make an impact on their students, community, and beyond. It is no longer good enough to make our schools better. The best spaces for learning are demanding impact in the community and beyond as well. How can all of a school's ecosystem design and own some of these central tenants of excellent mission and vision? 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Why We Opted Out

I've been waiting to tell this story. I've actually been nervous about telling this story. I don't want to be the poster boy for opting out of testing in Missouri or anywhere. I have been a public educator for 19 years. I understand that there are rules and procedures that are a part of being involved with a public system of education. I also know my daughter. She is a wonderful 9-year-old that is a sponge when it comes to learning. She wants to know more about everything, and it has been a joy to support this journey from the moment that she was born.

For five years or more, I knew that these days would be coming. I knew that my preschool daughter would become my kindergarten daughter, and my kindergarten daughter would become my 3rd grade daughter. I worried that the angle of instruction in her otherwise very constructivist public school would begin to change. The language of learning would shift, and the joy of learning would give way to the worries of learning and more specifically, the worries of state testing.

In the fall, I started to watch this happen. As an educator, I was able to see the shift. It is subtle and not visible for most parents, but there is a shift. For Ellie, it started in the fall with Terranova testing. This testing was moved to the fall in our district to provide more formative data for teachers to make decisions about how to differentiate for kids. Ellie did well, but mentioned on multiple occasions that she couldn't figure out why they wouldn't let her read after she finished testing. She said, "Dad, I'll work hard. They think that we won't work hard if we have a book ready to read." This was hard to swallow, but we rolled with it. Soon after this testing, we began Discovery Education benchmarking tests. This would mean three times during the year, September, November, and February, Ellie would be taking tests in both math and reading to determine her readiness for the state testing in April. It was during these tests that Ellie started to express that she didn't want to go to school. "It wasn't fun. We weren't learning anything. All we do is take tests." This was a gut shot for me, and I started to think that it was the right time for our family to speak up. It was time to consider ending the volume of testing that Ellie would have to complete. We spoke to the principal in January asking for the procedures to opt out of state testing.

This decision didn't come lightly. We realized that this decision, that we felt was right for our family, could be viewed as a protest or a fulfillment of a personal mission by me to limit testing in school. We were purposeful in our deliberation and discussion. Ellie's voice mattered to us as well. She was asking for help, and we needed to response. We didn't feel a need to rescue her or eliminate hard work, but we felt the need to say to our school, enough with the test focus. We wanted our daughter spending more time in the joy of learning in lieu of testing and test preparation. In the next few months, we started getting more "MAP Practice" worksheets, messages about upcoming testing, and it was also clear that more time was being focused on getting ready for the test in class. The school was silent for almost two months around the situation. I asked again about my options in February, and I was told that I would get answers soon.

I understand the concerns of the district. They didn't and don't want to become the first district in the state to have a whole class of student data get invalidated because they fall below the 95% threshold for testing students, and they couldn't have been certain whether I was going to be the only parent to opt-out or the first of many that would be making this request because the ground swell of students opting out was clearly growing nationwide. The district had to make sure that they had a well thought out legal response, so that they could show the state that they had met their responsibility to test in the case that state funding be withheld for missing the threshold. Next year or the following will probably be the breaking point when opting out begins to cause reliability and validity issues with some state tests in some states around the country. When this domino falls, then state teacher evaluation accountability may fall, the way districts are judged by the state and by the media may fall, and the realities of testing may and probably will in its current format be thrown into disarray. I understood their caution.

In March, I asked Ellie again what she was thinking about testing, and she said that she didn't want to take it. I was almost certain that all of the hype and rewards for doing well on the tests at school would eventually sway her. If they had, I probably would have let it be. I didn't have a ton of courage to spend on this, sure it was important to me for her, but it wasn't designed to cause more family stress. I had a final meeting with representatives from our school district, and they told me in the meeting that they had no local control over the situation. They claimed that it was a state mandate, and that their hands were tied. I requested the name of someone at the state in which I could get that in writing. This request was never fulfilled. I also called the state. I talked with folks in both assessment and accountability. They informed me that the matter was one of local control. I informed the district about my correspondence. Things went silent for almost a week. The day before testing. I wrote a letter to the principal informing him that we would be keeping Ellie home during testing, and we did not want her to be forced to complete makeup tests. (This was what they originally told me that they were mandated to do.) In the end, my district softened their stance, and they allowed Ellie to opt out of testing. (There is a three page certified letter that explains their position. If anyone wants it, I'm happy to share.)

There were six mornings of testing on the schedule for the third grade from about 8:00-10:30 each morning. My wife and I adjusted our schedule. We realize that we are super fortunate to have this option in our lives. Lots of parents, and most of the parents in our district, don't have this freedom. I never wanted Ellie in the middle of this, and I couldn't have imagined her having to be at school during this time and feel the pressure of opting out. She had courage in how she talked about it with her friends, and she enjoyed every moment of learning time that we had a home. She learned how to make a new friendship bracelet. She learning more about the history of baseball (my day at home). She visited and listened to the stories of her great grandmother. She toured some historic neighborhoods in Saint Louis. We talked, laughed, and broke bread together in those moments.

In the end, we are happy how things turned out, but I know that more of these decisions lie ahead. I want some sanity to return to the learning spaces in our schools. I want tests that inform instruction, assessments that provide student choice, voice, and authentic audience to maximize engagement. I want my daughter to be able to read books after her tests. I want the life giving juice of learning to flow instead of being sucked out of education. We can do better, and for now, I believe that we have done better for Ellie.

One final note...I worry about other families that would like to make this choice, families that have children like Ellie who struggle with the volume of testing and test preparation being right for their families. Most families don't know that they have an option. Most families don't know the procedures to opt-out. Most families don't know the right questions to ask. All families deserve to know the path to make this happen. All families deserve transparency in how decisions are made. All families deserve to feel that being wealthy, knowledgeable, or connected to the school isn't the only path to the information that they need for their child to get opportunities that they deserve.