Friday, September 6, 2013

Creating Mountains Students Can Climb

cc flickr photo by azjd

A common struggle in many schools -- mine included -- is igniting the intrinsic motivation of students, particularly those who feel disaffected due to previous school experiences. I am currently reading, Motivating Students Who Don't Care, by Allen Mendler.  I have grown to appreciate the work of Mendler, and his frequent co-author Richard Curwin, because of their emphasis on the importance of relationships and meaningful connections with students.   In Motivating Students Who Don't Care, Mendler suggests five processes that can be used to connect with students and encourage active engagement in the learning process.
  1. Emphasizing effort
  2. Creating hope
  3. Respecting power
  4. Building relationships
  5. Expressing enthusiasm
While each of these strategies is very powerful, I was immediately struck by the importance of fostering hope for our challenging students.  I continue to be appalled by the number of times that I speak with students who honestly can not recall the last time they experienced success (of any kind) in a school setting.  These are twelve and thirteen year-old kids who see no relevance to education and have lost all hope that school will improve their lives. One way to begin turning the tables for these students is to actively generate opportunities for them to experience success.  As Mendler points out, "our challenge then, is to create mountains that students believe they can climb."  Just giving students a sense of accomplishment can be a powerful means of shifting their attitude toward school -- fostering a belief, that with some effort, they will be able to experience success.  We have to be purposeful about setting these students up to succeed -- not necessarily staging events, but certainly taking time to ensure that struggling students have multiple opportunities to experience the feeling of accomplishment.  This might mean calling on them when we are certain they know an answer, altering the way we address concerns (i.e. "I see you a majority of the assignment...that is great!  Is there something I can do to help you with the remaining problems?"), or just being cognizant of their little successes for celebration. As you work with students who seem to lack motivation, think about whether or not they have developed a sense of accomplishment and then consider what you can do to set them up for success.  How do you create mountains that students believe they can climb?

From the archives Molehills out of Mountains - originally published on October 11, 2012

Monday, September 2, 2013

5 Point Plan for a Great Day

cc flickr photo azjd
Let's be honest.  Some days we just don't feel like we have it.  We might be tired, stressed, overwhelmed -- simply not ready to face what the day (or week) has to bring.  It is easy to submit to those feelings, and chances are, things will go exactly as you expected (as Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't -- you're right.").  Even if you love your work, it is human nature to have days like this -- for some of us, more often than others.

So, here's a "five point plan," that won't necessarily be easy to implement, but if done with fidelity, should leave you feeling good about what you have accomplished -- regardless of what actually gets done.

  1. No Whining - go an entire day without complaining. This one is going to take deliberate effort.  Truth be told, I shudder to think how many times I complain about something during a given day.  Start out by vowing not to verbally, or outwardly, complain -- then, if you're up for the challenge, get control of your mental whining. 
  2. Less Me, More Others - think a lot less about your personal problems and struggles, and a lot more about how you can help others with their challenges.  This might include friends, family members, students, or colleagues.  Make it a point to do something that brightens the day for someone else, and see if you don't benefit from the reflection.
  3. Slow Down - mentally, and physically.  As difficult as it is, try not to multi-task, but instead give all of your effort and energy to one thing at a time.  This is especially important when you work with people.  Make sure that you give those with whom you interact, your undivided attention.  Take breaks.  Take a breath.  Smile.
  4. Identify Your Big Rocks - be sure to focus on what is important (which is not necessarily the same as what is urgent).  As Goethe said; "Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least."  I need to be constantly reminded of this -- living that quote is one of my biggest personal challenges.   
  5. Be Thankful - let's face it, most of us have many reasons to be thankful.  Our health, our families, our jobs, our friends -- and the list could go on.  When I think about many of the students I work with, it is a wonder that they walk in our front gates at all.  Some face challenges and circumstances that would make many adults (myself included) wither.  Consider what you have to be thankful for, and refer to point #2.

Following the steps in this action plan is much more challenging than writing about them.  Even though I don't claim to have come anywhere near mastering this process, I do know that my best days happen when I am mindful of these five things.

Have a great week!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Addicted to "Busy"

my wunderlist account
Beware the barrenness of a busy life.  ~ Socrates
It's a three day weekend, but I feel like I am working (on school related stuff) more than I should.  I keep reviewing the goals I outlined in my first post on this new blog, and the reviews are mixed.  As I glance at my Wunderlist account, and the sixty-three tasks sitting in my folders, I can't help but wonder if I am a "busy" addict.

Does feeling busy, a great deal of the time, provide me with a distorted sense of importance?  The opportunity to be the victim of circumstances?  A potential excuse in the event of failure?  I'm also considering if I am really as busy as I think I am, or just overwhelmed by an inability to sift what's important from what is not.  

A reality check for me is when people with whom I work begin conversations with, "I know you are incredibly busy, but..."  When I hear that, I generally feel a tinge of guilt that comes with the understanding that I am projecting an air of importance based on busyness (i.e. don't bother me, I have too much too do).

We all have days when we feel like we have much more to get done than what is humanly possible to accomplish, but truth be told, in most cases it works out.  I know that the key to solving this challenge lies in identifying what is most important, and making sure that our "busyness" addresses those issues of highest value.  That, in itself, is a challenging task.

While I continue to struggle through this personal challenge, I'll do my best to heed my own advice from Do Over: 5 Things I'll Do Differently:

  • Take breaks
  • Minimize multi-tasking
  • Turn off my phone
  • Do less
  • Fill the day with what is important

In fact, I'm headed to the pool with my daughter right now.  That should address all five.  Feel free to share your thoughts, and strategies, for breaking the addiction to being busy.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Fostering a Growth Mindset

Ask "How will they learn best?" Not "Can they learn?" ~ Jaime Escalante
cc flickr photo by azjd
Look closely on a junior high school campus, or in a junior high school classroom, and you will see a lot of uncertainty.  It is simply an awkward age.  Not only do social situations generate anxiety, but many students have already developed a keen sense of their academic challenges (i.e. "I'm not good at math," or "I don't like to read.") which add another level of discomfort to school.  By the time they have reached seventh grade, many students have experienced multiple years of academic challenge, and even failure.  They exhibit what Carol Dweck would say is a "fixed mindset" about learning.  These students feel like "what you see is what you get," many believing that they have little (or no) control over their level of intelligence.

As educators, our words matter.  The way we talk to our students, the type of feedback we give, and the little things we do to encourage students are essential to helping them acquire a "growth mindset" -- the belief that their intelligence can be developed through hard work, practice, and persistence.  As teachers, it is critical that we work with our students in ways that foster the belief that intelligence is a product of effort, and that we establish classrooms where grit and tenacity are encouraged.

For an excellent overview of the ideas behind a growth mindset (and the impact that it has in the classroom), check out this brief TED Talk, by Eduardo Briceno.

In the Education Week Article, Classroom Strategies to Foster a Growth Mindset, by Larry Ferlazzo, Professor Carol Dweck and Dr. Lisa Blackwell suggest the following strategies for establishing a classroom environment that encourages growth:

  • Establish high expectations
  • Create a risk tolerant learning zone
  • Give feedback that focuses on process -- the things that students can control, like their effort, challenge-seeking and persistence
  • Introduce students to the concept of the malleable mind -- research that indicates that our brains develop through effort and learning

Larry Ferlazzo, has compiled a great list of resources to aid teachers who would like to focus on helping their students develop a growth mindset: The Best Resources on Helping Our Students Develop a Growth Mindset.  You will also want to check out the Mindset Works website, for more ideas of how you can incorporate Carol Dweck's research in your classroom.

How do you foster a growth mindset with your students?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Seating Chart that Shouldn't Be

Another post prefaced by the statement that this is my personal blog and the thoughts and opinions expressed in this post, and all other posts published here, are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer, or anyone else, for that matter.

A little over a week ago, I ran across the following message, from Diane Ravitch, in my Twitter stream.

Being from Arizona, I was naturally intrigued.  Maybe Dr. Ravitch had run across a pocket of innovation, a teacher who was doing something great, a school that was finding success in hard times -- something to emulate in a state that (like many others) seems to devalue public education with every passing legislative session.  We do have positive examples here in Arizona -- schools that are finding success against the odds, teachers who are truly "sentries against hopelessness" (Robert Debruyn), and educational practices (and practitioners) to emulate.

But, when I saw the linked image, I wasn't sure whether to laugh, cry, be angry, or saddened by such a simple depiction of what I believe to be the greatest challenge (and frustration) of public educators.

Published with permission - Artwork by David Fitzsimmons

Take a minute and read each position in this school seating chart.  Sound familiar?  In far too many of our schools, this image hits too close to home to be considered humor -- but the circumstances that lead to this mess are laughable.  In We Need to Know, I wrote about the danger of becoming immune to the circumstances of our students.  As educators, it is imperative that we are aware of what our students face if we are to have any chance of meeting their needs -- socially, emotionally, or academically.  But faced with an increasing number of students who are dealing with the cold realities of cruel circumstances, situations that force them to grow up too fast, differentiating is a daunting task for the best of educators.

Now, I certainly don't mean to imply that problems of this nature are the exclusive domain of public schools -- several of these issues plague our society, indiscriminate of socioeconomic status, or the school a student attends.  However, many of our public schools work with a greater percentage of students from challenging home situations (those without sufficient support, or vocal advocates) and they do it with less than adequate resources.

So where does that leave us?  From where I sit, there isn't a clear plan (on a national, or state level) that will adequately address these concerns.  A conversation about viable solutions (not that I have any) is probably best left for another day, and another post.  However, I like the suggestions, and questions, fellow Arizona educator John Spencer raises in his blog post Seven Thoughts on Education Policy. I think it is a great conversation starter for educational advocacy.

In the meantime, I encourage all educators to maintain a balance of high expectations, support, and an appropriate level of empathy, and understanding, for ALL students.
When the world says give up, hope whispers, try it one more time.  ~ Anonymous
(Special thanks to David Fitzsimmons for permission to share his artwork in this blog post)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Keep Going. Keep Going. Keep Going.

cc flickr photo by azjd
Believe it or not, tomorrow is the beginning of our sixth week of school.  My twitter feed is filled with messages about schools starting up, and teachers/students returning to school.  Meanwhile we have surpassed the midway point of our first quarter.  Overall, it has been a relatively smooth beginning to the school year.

That being said, when I committed to renewing my effort at blogging, I promised myself that I would be honest in my writing. A career in education isn't always a walk in the park, and I think it is important that in writing about our experiences in school we lay out the challenges -- as well as the successes.  Sometimes those who are feel discouraged, from time to time, need to know they are not alone.  

This year, our student enrollment is up.  That is good.  Our staffing is about the same.  That's not great.  We have fewer administrators.  Good, or bad -- depends on your perspective -- but as one of those administrators, I am definitely feeling stretched.  I see more students with personal, and academic concerns.  That increases the challenges and pressures faced by our teaching staff.  I know we don't have the resources we should have in a perfect world (but, when has that ever been the case).  In short, we have a arduous road ahead of us...something that could be said of all committed educators.  

Truth be told, there are days that I'm tired.  Days I'm frustrated.  Times when I am not necessarily giddy about facing the challenges of the day...or the week.  But just like we emphasize to our students, grit and determination is important.  See challenges, and failure, as opportunities.  Get back on the proverbial horse.  We have to keep going.

Each Monday is a chance to climb back in the trenches.  An opportunity to make a difference for others -- students, parents, colleagues, and the school community.  I can guarantee that there will be many successes in the week to come.  They may be small, and we may have to do some searching, but they'll be there if we are willing to look.  Use those small victories to fuel your efforts.  

Like many, I have become a fan of Soul Pancake's, Kid President.  One of his latest messages is A Tiny Poem to the World.  Sound advice as we begin another week.  Keep going.  Keep going.  Keep going.

Make it a great week!

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Casualty of Testing

cc flickr photo by azjd
In my own philanthropy and business endeavors, I have seen the critical role that the arts play in stimulating creativity and in developing vital communities...the arts have a crucial impact on our economy and are an important catalyst for learning, discovery, and achievement in our country.  ~ Paul Allen
I worry about the arts.

The current political obsession with assessment testing, and accountability, has left us with public schools that, by and large, marginalize courses that emphasize creative expression.  The emphasis on standardized testing, coupled with severe under funding, has forced schools to focus resources on core instructional elements (reading, writing, and mathematics) at the expense of classes that develop, or enhance, student appreciation for the fine arts.  In a world in need of creative problem solvers, I think this is a potentially devastating mistake.

I sometimes struggle with the fact that my daughter (who is passionate about music, acting, and drawing) attends a school  where, until this year, she has only had music class about once a week, and has never, in her elementary school career, had an actual art class, during school hours.  This isn't a knock on the school--or the leadership and staff members--but it is a black eye for an educational system that views the fine arts as expendable.  Unfortunately, my junior high is not much better.  Over a ten year period, as budgets have tightened, and accountability has increased -- elective courses have been whittled to the bone in terms of class time, and choice.  As a society, I think we have to recognize that many students have an intense interest in the arts, and when we marginalize the content students are passionate about, we also marginalize the students.

There is also an issue of equity in this dilemma.  As a family, we have been able to supplement my daughter's limited to exposure to the arts through our own efforts.  I have traded attendance at sporting events, for musicals, plays, art exhibits, and concerts.  My daughter takes after school art and music classes.  We have the means, and access, to do that.  The same is not true for all kids, and all families.  

I understand, and support, the emphasis on mathematics and science, but exposure to the arts should not be an "either/or" proposition.  My wife (@ideanad) has earned her PhD in electrical engineering and is a self-described "math geek," but she is also an accomplished pianist.  She would tell you that fine arts encourage students to look at things from a different perspective, developing a unique eye (and ear) for problem solving.

As usual, I don't have an immediate solution.  I know many schools that are finding creative ways to integrate the arts and expose students to this medium of learning.  However, I fear that until funding improves, and the emphasis on standardized testing is diminished, fine arts will be continue to be a casualty of assessment testing.

Breakfast - Still Life by Alina

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

60 Ways to Connect with Your Students

cc flickr photo by azjd
Coming to school each day can become a hopeless task for some children unless they succeed at what they do. We teachers are the sentries against that hopelessness.  ~ Robert DeBruyn
If you know me, or you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I have a passion for working with challenging students, and that I place an extremely high degree of importance on the “human element” of the education profession.  I certainly do not discount the value of content knowledge, but I am a true believer in the power of educators to build hope in those students who may have lost it, and generate the sparks that ignite the flames of lifelong learners. 

In order to do that, it is imperative that we know our students (see We Need to Know), and do everything within our power to develop meaningful connections.  This doesn’t have to be an elaborate, or time consuming process.  In fact, it is often the the little things that have the most significant impact.  Here is a list of sixty ideas to get you started on the road to building strong connections with your students (in no particular order).
  1. Learn their names
  2. Call them by their name...every chance you get
  3. Leave a positive message on voicemail (so the parent, and the student can listen)
  4. Ask them to help with something in the classroom, or run an errand
  5. Call on them when you know they have the answer
  6. Smile frequently
  7. Take an interest in the little things - “I notice that you…”
  8. Write a note of encouragement
  9. Eat lunch with them
  10. Attend an event in which they are participating (i.e. concert, athletics, etc.)
  11. Post-It note positivity -- drop a note on as their desk (a smiley face, “great job,” etc.)
  12. Sponsor a club, or extracurricular activity
  13. Share about yourself
  14. Show appreciation - say “thank you” and “please”
  15. Involve them in classroom decision making
  16. Laugh with them
  17. Be willing to laugh at yourself
  18. Spend time outside of your classroom before, during, and after school
  19. Heap on the praise and encouragement
  20. Call home when a they are absent -- let them know you are concerned, and that they are missed
  21. Give up some control (I know...that makes you nervous)
  22. Find ways to let them see that they can make a difference
  23. Give them opportunities to pursue their personal interests
  24. Admit your mistakes
  25. Tell them “I’m sorry,” when it’s called for
  26. Demonstrate empathy and compassion
  27. Learn about your their home/family situation
  28. Share your frustrations, and model how to handle them appropriately
  29. Keep Jolly Ranchers on hand (I’s a bribe...but it can be a conversation starter)
  30. Point out, and celebrate, small victories
  31. Help them set attainable goals
  32. Go out of your way to give them a quick hello -- when they aren’t in your class
  33. Greet students at your classroom door
  34. Say, “I believe in you. I know you can do it.”
  35. Have high expectations, and back it up with a high level of support
  36. Build grit -- tell them to “keep trying”
  37. Be patient
  38. Be persistent
  39. Show grace
  40. Model respectful interactions
  41. Give a sincere compliment
  42. Ask them about their weekend
  43. Intentionally plan for opportunities for them to experience success (write it in a lesson plan)
  44. Address concerns in a way that maintains their dignity
  45. Say, “You are someone. You are going places.”
  46. Recognize when students are having a tough day, and give them a break - it happens to all of us
  47. Hold them accountable for what they say they will do
  48. Follow through on what you say you will do
  49. Give meaningful feedback
  50. Praise effort
  51. Don't make assumptions (or Assume the Best)
  52. Make relationships a priority
  53. Tell students you are proud of them
  54. Slow down, be present, listen
  55. High fives, fist bumps and handshakes
  56. Stay away from your desk, or out of the office
  57. Be an advocate
  58. Find something you have in common
  59. Talk about their future as a definitive - “When you get to high school…”, etc.
  60. Tell students, “you matter!"
I challenge you to pick two, or three, of these ideas from the list and be intentional about putting them into practice on a daily basis. Continue to add to your strategies throughout the school year. If something isn’t working, try something else.

If you have other suggestions for building connections, please add them in the comments. I would love to hear your ideas and add to this list!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Snakes (or Tarantulas) and School

cc flickr photo azjd

Admit it.  Some of you clicked on this link expecting a "train wreak" of a post.  Others, searching for a a bad movie analogy.  You are probably thinking, "Where in the world is he going with this?"  I'll try to explain...

Our family makes regular trips to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  It is a wonderful place to see the true beauty of the Sonoran Desert, and during the summer, they open on selected evenings, for "flashlight tours."  Those of you familiar with sweltering summer days in Arizona know that, at sunset, the desert truly comes to life.  We have always enjoyed these tours, but on a recent trip, I heard something that I found disappointing.  One of the volunteers working the event, was talking about snakes in the garden, and informed us that on the rare occasions a rattlesnake is found in the park, it is captured and relocated.  The "little kid" in me enjoyed the anticipation, that element of risk, that comes with the possibility of encountering a Diamondback in the desert.  Even though it had never happened, in my mind, there was a possibility.

In contrast, this weekend, my brother and I went on a night hike at Lost Dutchman State Park, just outside of Phoenix.  We were actually hoping to see a rattlesnake (don't tell my Mom).  Equipped with headlamps, we headed off into a desert environment, where I know that snakes are not relocated.  As monsoon storms began to roll into the valley, we kept one eye on the trail, and one on the lightning bolts in the distance.  Just the knowledge that we were in a wilderness area, at night, made the experience more exhilarating -- more authentic.  As we walked I was very mindful of where I was stepping, and I scanned the desert floor, watching for creatures of the night.  Much to my chagrin, we did not see any snakes, but we did encounter a number of large Desert Blond Tarantulas -- enough to peak my interest and ensure that I would continue to participate in night hikes.  

So, now the connection.  When we talk about authentic learning experiences in school, are they really authentic?  Do our students plod through the day, without seeing relevance to what they are doing, and without the anticipation of meaningful (and exciting) lessons?  Does the learning feel contrived?  How much of our students' experience in school is like what John Spencer describes in a his recent post, Bad Math Tests?  Poor attempts at relevance.  As Gary Stager has asked, "Why do we ask kids to make presentations, on topics they don't care about, to an audience that doesn't exist?"

Or, in contrast, do our students have the opportunity to learn in relevant ways, apply what they have learned, and share with an authentic audience?  Is their experience it it truly relevant?

Do our schools offer an educational journey in a contrived, proverbial garden, or in a wilderness where their learning is authentic?  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tomorrow Will Be Better

cc flickr photo by azjd
The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.  ~ Abraham Lincoln
Today was one of "those" days.  Chaotic from the beginning.  In the past, I have compared the experience to playing a game of Asteroids -- frantically trying to shoot down all of the issues before a massive collision occurs.   The longer you "play," the more likely you are to miss the "rocks" hurtling around you.  Today, I definitely took some direct hits.

I was at a district training all day yesterday, so of course, I was behind before I walked in the door.  My email inbox was overflowing.  I had several discipline referrals -- with other issues popping up during the day.  A few parents called with concerns, and to top it off, I had a couple hours of flag football supervision (something I would normally enjoy if not for the 108 degree temperature, and the fact that I was wearing dress clothes).  By the end of the day, I was tired, hot, frustrated, and as you can tell from this post, not extremely positive.

Even in my third year as a principal, I am still really struggling to manage my workload in a way that allows me to be "in the moment" throughout the day.  While I suspect everyone has their struggles, I envy those school leaders who make it look easy.  I don't feel effective when I have "asteroid" days, and when I reflect on the experience, I am appalled at how quickly my focus shifts from people, to tasks -- when I am overwhelmed.  That isn't a good thing.

In spite of today's struggles (and I know there will be more to come), tomorrow is a new day, and I will find a way to make it a better.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Do You Assume the Best?

cc flickr photo by azjd
You must stick to your conviction, but be ready to abandon your assumptions.  ~ Denis Waitley
As a seventh grade science teacher, I spent time helping my students develop the ability to make accurate, and specific, observations.  We practiced this skill through a variety of activities, and investigations.  As a culmination to our introduction to observations, I lead the class through one final activity.

Using a candle, with a blackened wick, and beads of hardened wax, trailing down the sides, I walked around the classroom, asking students to make as many observations as possible.  Typical responses included that the candle was blue, that it was approximately four inches long, that it was bumpy, and that it had been burned.  Bingo.  The candle was actually brand new.  Using a different candle, I had dripped wax on the side, and colored the wick with a Sharpie marker.  The students had made an assumption based upon what they had inference.

Inferences, and assumptions, are a normal part of analyzing situations, but in the world of education, they can also be detrimental to our school community.  For your consideration, have you ever been guilty of saying, or thinking, any of the following:

  • That student doesn't do class work (or homework) -- he/she is lazy.
  • I won't get any support from that parent.  Why bother calling?
  • She/he won't be able to complete that assignment.  They don't have the skills.
  • That kid dresses like a gangster.  I'll bet he is trouble.
  • I am sure this meeting will be rough.  I've heard bad things about the kid/teacher/parent/administrator.
  • If I give students more choice, they will get out of control.  It won't work.
  • That student is always absent.  He/she just doesn't care.
All of those statements might be accurate.  Or, perhaps, none of them are correct.  The problem is that if our assumptions prevent us from taking action (making efforts to intervene), we may miss out on opportunities to develop connections, help students, or create partnerships.  

If you are going to assume -- assume the best.  Assume there is a reason the student isn't doing their work.  Assume that a parent will be concerned, and supportive, about their student's progress.  Assume that there is good in every child -- even the kids who are rough around the edges.  

Making negative assumptions is the easy way out.  As Krissy Venosdale (@venspired) would say, in education, "we don't do easy, we make easy happen through hard work."  

Monday, August 12, 2013

Data Dilemma: Students Are Not Dots

Regression - cc art and flickr photo by azjd

Uh oh.  I am beginning this post with a disclaimer - the opinions expressed here are my own and may, or may not, represent those of my current employer.  This might not be a good thing.

Data driven.  A term that gets thrown around a lot in the world of education.  I prefer the phrase "data informed."  Let me explain.

As a school administrator, I analyze more quantitative data than I would care to admit.  I use it as a tool to gauge our progress as a school.  Progress toward what, you might ask?  I think you know what's coming -- progress toward what the state perceives to be the ultimate measure of school success: a standardized test.  So what happens when the data suggests a particular course of action that might benefit the school, as a whole, but may not be in the best interest of all students?  What do you do as a teacher?  As a school leader?  What price are you willing to pay to improve a state assigned letter grade?  Are you willing to extrapolate teaching practice, and decision making, from data derived from standardized test results?  Is there a way to balance the best interest of students with the pursuit of proficient test scores?

Collecting, and analyzing, data is a critical part of the reflective process in education.  It can be good formative practice.  However, there is a natural tendency to think of data as numbers, tables, charts, lines and dots on a graph -- disassociated from the students that we teach.  Evaluating this numerical information can provide insights into our teaching, and perhaps student performance, but let's not forget that our students are not dots on a chart.  Data can be so much more: our observations, conversations, student writing, art work, and creative endeavors.  It might be something a parent tells us, or a student's attitude and demeanor.  It is this qualitative data that humanizes the students we teach, allowing us to truly individualize instruction, taking into account the best interest of the child.  Many of the decisions we make should be data informed, but "driven" is a pretty strong word.

What we really need is data informed, but "student driven" decision making.  But, can that exist in the current era of high stakes testing and accountability?

I have more questions than answers.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Making the Most of Our Moments

cc flickr photo by azjd
Yesterday is gone.  Tomorrow has not yet come.  We have only today.  Let us begin.  ~ Mother Teresa
Moments.  Our days are filled with them, yet we often fall victim to foresight -- missing the opportunities that pop up, right in front of us.  It is easy to spend a day, or even a lifetime, looking ahead, wishing time away, and failing to take advantage of the small moments we are granted to be difference makers.  Zig Ziglar had it right when he said: "You never know when a moment, and few sincere words, can have an impact on a life."

Peter Bregman recently wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review, entitled A Question That Can Change Your Life.  The question that he encourages his readers to ask is: what can I do, right now, that would be the most powerful use of this moment?  According to Bregman:
"We're already spending a certain amount of time doing things -- in meetings, managing businesses, writing emails, making decisions.  If we could just make a higher impact during that time, it's all upside with no cost."
So true.  As a school administrator, I can't begin to count the times I have sat through meetings, participated in professional development, supervised activities, or worked on any number of mundane tasks -- a bit mind numb, passing time until I am able to get on with "more important" things.  But, as Bregman suggests, being mindful of these moments, and actively searching for opportunities to make a difference can pay significant dividends.

For me, a perfect example is lunch duty.  At our school, we rotate cafeteria supervision, and Friday is my assigned day.  It's my favorite day of the week.  Not because it is the prelude to a weekend, but because I have the opportunity (during a two hour time period) to interact with many of our nine hundred junior high students.  I use the time to learn names, encourage, visit about what is going on in the lives of the kids, and build connections.  On most Friday's I have many other things to do, but none are as important, or have as much potential for impact as lunch duty.  On Friday's at noon, lunch duty is definitely the most powerful use of the moment.

Be intentional with your moments -- aware of the potential to make a difference.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Homework - A Question of Equity?

cc flickr photo by azjd

This is the type of post that will likely get me in trouble.

We have spent a lot of time on homework tonight.  Math problems, writing paragraphs, and a social studies worksheet.  Checking problems, correcting spelling, adding punctuation, and looking up definitions.  Encouraging.  Prodding.  Maybe even a bit of threatening (not proud of that).  I am a little frustrated, and my daughter is no longer speaking to me.  

As you might guess, I am not a fan of homework.  I have doubts about the value gained for the time invested.  I don't like that my daughter spends her day at school, only to come home and do more school work.  Homework consumes the time that we have to spend as a family, and it limits opportunities for my daughter to pursue her interests -- music, art, acting, etc.  The sad thing is that I probably don't invest the time, helping her with assignments, that I should (my wife assumes the bulk of that responsibility). I could do more.

Don't get me wrong, I don't blame teachers, or schools, or principals.  Homework is a product of the system (albeit, a system that in many ways hasn't changed in decades--even centuries).  But, when I consider the amount of time, and arm twisting, that goes into our nightly homework routine, I worry about the kids who don't have anyone to help.  No one to encourage.  No one to prod.  Not even a little bit of mild threatening.  It seems to me this is a pretty significant equity issue.  Homework is setting those students up for failure.  It's asking a lot of many kids who face unstable, uncertain, and chaotic home lives.

I certainly don't have the answer(s) to this problem, and I am sure that one can come up with valid reasons for assigning homework.  I guess my hope is that we are considering the diverse needs, abilities, and support systems of ALL students when we make those assignments.  I hope that for every assignment, there is a clear purpose, and a plan to support those kiddos that need it.  

For my family, things will work out.  Chances are, my daughter will be talking to me again tomorrow.  And, she'll have more homework tomorrow night.       

Monday, August 5, 2013

We Need to Know

cc flickr photo by azjd

I began my teaching career at an inner-city school in downtown Phoenix.  For a young man who was from a very small town, in central Kansas, the diversity of the school was staggering -- ethnically, economically, and academically.  While I was aware of families in need in our community, I had never been exposed to the level of poverty, and violence, that my downtown Phoenix students faced on a daily basis.  At the time, I remember being shocked when I walked into my classroom to find two of my students comparing bullet wounds, or when, on a home visit with the school counselor, we discovered a student who was staying home in order to protect his mother from an abusive boyfriend.  The realities of life had forced these students to grow up way too fast.

Even years later, at a different school, I sometimes worry that I have become immune to the harsh realities of students who live in poverty.  I no longer bat an eye when students tell me a parent is in jail, or they are homeless, or that they weren't able to be in school because they were babysitting an ill sibling.  It's not that I don't care, but these events that I should find appalling, no longer have the shock value.  Been there, seen that.

This morning, the first day of our third week of school, a teacher asked me what was going on with one of our students who some would find rough around the edges.  I wasn't sure what the teacher was talking about.  A few minutes later, as students were walking into one of our buildings, I noticed the boy.  He had tears in his eyes, and seemed antsy.  I asked if he was alright.  He shook his head -- "no."  I asked if he wanted to hang out in my office for awhile.  He shook his head -- "yes."  He came into my office with me and sat in one of my chairs, head down, tears flowing.  "Do you need a Kleenex?"  A nod of the head...yes.  "Are you having problems at home?"  Another nod...yes.  "Are you safe?"  Another nod, quickly followed by "I don't want to talk about it."  I let it go, and allowed him to sit quietly.  But, as I worked at my desk, thoughts and questions bounced around in my head.  I know your name, but:

  • Who do you live with?
  • Do you have brothers and sisters?
  • Is there someone at home you can talk to?
  • Do you have someone to go to when you need help?
  • Is there any chance you will be able to focus on school?
  • Have you eaten anything today?
  • Where do you live?
  • Who are your friends?
  • What do you like to do when your not in school?
  • Do you have any dreams/aspirations?

It was painfully obvious that I didn't know enough about this youngster to have even a decent understanding of the challenges he might be facing, and how these challenges might impact his performance in school.  It reminded me of a post I wrote, about a year ago, entitled Do You Know Me?  As a principal, I should do better.  I should know.  So tomorrow, I will check in on this student, and I will begin to ask questions -- not overbearing, but caring. 

Problems and issues are certainly not exclusive to students from poverty.  That is why it is imperative that educators take the time, and invest the energy necessary to really know their students.

How do you learn about your kids and develop connections?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda: 5 Strategies to Avoid Worry

cc flickr photo by azjd14
Worrying is like paying on a debt that may never come due.  ~ Will Rogers
I worry -- a lot more than I should.  It's not something that I am proud of, or that I enjoy.  In fact, it is a characteristic that I know is counterproductive to effective leadership (as well as my personal health and attitude toward my profession).  It contributes to challenging decision making, diminishes confidence, and leads to a great deal of second guessing.  I'd love to be a confident decision maker, able to put worries behind me, but I know that worry is in my nature, and therefore, I have to have a plan to make decisions in a way that diminishes my capacity for concern.

Here are five strategies I am trying to implement in order to avoid stressing over the decisions I make as a school leader:

1.  Be Informed 
We don't always have the time to do a great deal of research when making decisions, but in most cases we can afford to slow down a bit and be certain that we are looking objectively at situations that require action.  This little bit of extra time might be enough to avoid mistakes.

2. Do the Right Thing
When faced with tough decisions, do the right thing.  In schools, this usually means doing what is best for kids.  In most cases, decisions involve multiple players and numerous potential outcomes.  There is a good chance that regardless of the decision that is made, not everyone will be pleased.  If you do what you truly think is right, you should be able to feel good about the outcome.

3. Reflect, but Don't Dwell
Reflecting on the decisions we make is good.  What went well?  What didn't?  What could be done better in the future?  The key is not to obsess over decisions that have already been made.  Ask yourself if you could have done something better, make note of it, and then get on with the business at hand.

4. Say "I'm Sorry"
If you make a mistake, or feel like you have made a poor decision, be willing to apologize.  A little humility in the face of a failure can be refreshing for everyone involved.

5. Move On
Don't play the "shoulda, woulda, coulda" game.  Once a decision has been made, do everything possible to ensure a successful outcome, and move forward.

Trust me when I say that I don't have any level of expertise in avoiding worry, but I do have a lot of experience in what it feels like.  For me, the therapeutic aspect of blogging is the opportunity to get my thoughts in writing, and have a plan for improvement.

What do you do to ensure confidence in the choices you make?  Please share!

You are a Difference Maker!

This post is from the archives of my Molehills out of Mountains blog.  It is a brief message written to our staff, last year, in anticipation of our first day of school.  Thought some might find it  useful as the new school year starts-up.
cc flickr photo by Krissy.Venosdale

As we prepare for the arrival of our students, I hope you will take a few quiet moments to put aside lesson plans, forget about administrative tasks, and consider our purpose (as a school, and as individual educators): we must attend to the academic, social and emotional needs of each one of our students.  Our educational system asks a lot of teachers, and unfortunately, in times when we are spread too "thin," it is difficult to maintain our focus on the best interest of kids.  That is why it is so critical that we take time for reflection, deliberately considering how we maintain student centered practices on our campus and in our classrooms.
When our students walk through the front gates on Monday morning, please remember that you are a difference maker!  The small gestures you make to welcome students, and demonstrate an interest in their lives, will have an impact.  There is tremendous power in a smile, a handshake, or an encouraging word.  In the coming year, you will have opportunities to build confidence where it hasn't existed, develop connections that have never been present, and generate hope for students who's academic careers have been marred by hopelessness.  All of these are truly super powers!During yesterday's training, the presenters shared the following quote - a powerful reminder of our ability to make a difference (either positive, or negative).
I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom.  It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.  As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.  I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.  In all situations, it is my response that decides whether crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.  ~ Haim Ginot
You should all be proud of the profession you have chosen, the hard work you do on behalf of our students, and the determination with which you address challenges.  In the first few days/weeks of school I challenge you to really get to know your students, share a little about yourself, develop meaningful connections, and make decisions based upon what is best for kids.  Thank you for all you do for our school community...your efforts are noticed, and appreciated!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Purpose through Passion

cc flickr photo by azjd14
Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success.  When you do a thing, do it with all your might.  Put your soul into it.  Stamp it with your own personality.  Be active, be energetic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object.  Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.  ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today I had the opportunity to spend time in a passionate educator's classroom.  I witnessed the teacher's enthusiasm, and energy, translate to student engagement, collaboration and critical thinking.  As I watched the kids working, I considered how fortunate we are, as educators, to work in a profession where we have the opportunity to touch lives, and be difference makers, on a daily basis.  

You certainly don't have to be an educator to understand the role that passions play in our feelings of worth, and purpose.  Consider the following piece about Izzy Paskowitz, a former professional surfer, who -- due to life circumstances -- found a new reason to pursue the sport he loves.  It is a powerful story of finding purpose in a personal passion.

As we return to our classrooms, welcome students to our buildings, and settle into our daily routines I would suggest that we would be well advised to heed the advice of Emerson -- "be active, be energetic, and be faithful."  Our efforts, and enthusiasm, might be what our students need to discover their own passions...and, perhaps, even purpose.  In the words, of Howard Thurman:

Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive.  And then go and do that.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Great Balancing Act

cc flickr photo by azjd14

Today was the beginning of the second week of our new school year (yes, I know we start early).  As a school, we are still riding the highs of the "honeymoon period" -- when student behavior is outstanding, teacher morale is high, and stress is low.  I feel like our staff (myself included) is optimistic about the year to come.  Like many schools, we face a lot of challenges, many beyond our control.  We have a high number of students that live in poverty.  Our state isn't exactly generous with their funding of public education.  And, love 'em or leave 'em, the Common Core standards are breathing down the back of our necks.

Its difficult to go too far within education circles without hearing the mantra of providing students with rigorous curriculum and high expectations.  I don't have a problem with the use of these terms, per se, but in many cases (especially in the political arena) that is where the conversation ends.  As if rigor and expectations are enough for meaningful improvement.  Raise the bar, and students (or staff, or schools) will rise to the occasion.  As educators, we know that the reality is that we have to balance high expectations with a high level of support.  This is true at the micro, and macro levels -- from the individual student, to teachers, to departments, to schools, and even districts.  Without adequate support and resources, all of the high expectations in the world aren't enough to overcome the formidable challenges of meeting the diverse needs of our students.

This principal gig has certainly been a learning experience for me, if nothing else.  To be honest, In my first two years, I'm not sure that my expectations for myself, my students, or my staff, have been as high as they should have been.  Here's a secret.  I don't like conflict.  I don't like people to be upset with me.  And, I like to feel like I am viewed as thoughtful, and fair.  Sometimes this translates to difficulty saying no, delegating projects, distributing leadership, or providing critical feedback.  As Todd Whitaker might say, I am carrying around a lot of monkeys -- many of my own making (see Shifting the Monkey).

Whenever, I reflect on this personal kryptonite, I think of a 2010 post, by David Truss, entitled Going to the Hard Places (be sure to follow David on Twitter and add his blog to your feed).   In his post, David recounts the advice of his principal with regard to giving critical feedback:
"If you aren't willing to go to the hard places, then you aren't helping your staff, or your school."
As I embark on another year as a school leader, I am hopeful I can take steps to "go to the hard places" more often, while at the same time providing the support necessary to balance high expectations.  I ask my staff to do the same with our students.  They should demand the same from me -- and I should expect nothing less of myself.  In a way, it may be a significant step toward professional salvation.  Otherwise, those monkeys on my back might eat me alive.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Staying Connected with Digg Reader

Like many, I was heavily reliant on Google Reader to manage my blog subscriptions and keep up with my professional learning network.  As an avid twitter user, I have developed connections with many fellow educators, and I do my best to read about the work of others for inspiration, to challenge my own thinking, and to develop friendships.  Naturally, I was disappointed when Google announced it was shutting down its popular RSS feed reader, and I began looking for a replacement.

After trying numerous potential replacements, I have settled on a rather obscure alternative (and late arrival to the scene) - Digg Reader.  Perhaps my favorite thing about Google Reader was it's simplicity -- something that Digg Reader does an excellent job replicating.  If you are looking for a reader that is rich in features, this may not be your top choice, but Digg Reader has plenty of functionality to effectively manage a large number of feed subscriptions.

Web App

As you can see, the web interface is extremely minimalistic -- something that I appreciate (keeps me from getting distracted by clutter).  Users are able to organize feeds into folders, save them to read at a later date, or share them to Twitter or Facebook.

iOS Application

Digg Reader also has an iOS application that functions almost identically to the web application, allowing users to keep up with their feed while on the go.  Since Digg Reader is relatively new, I am hopeful that the Digg team will continue to add features, and options to integrate with other applications (like Evernote)--while maintaining its simplicity.  But for now, I am sold.  Digg Reader is definitely a viable replacement for Google Reader.

Learning never exhausts the mind.  ~ Leonardo Da Vinci

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Go Fish: The Challenge of Change

cc Flickr photo by azjd14

During a recent summer trip to my childhood home in central Kansas, we took my daughter, and her cousins, fishing at a family friend's farm pond.  Using hot dogs as bait, the kids reeled in large catfish, one after the other (see the video here), about as fast as my brother and I could bait their hooks.  At the end of the trip (and one package of hot dogs), my daughter declared her love of fishing -- proclaiming herself an expert.  I tried to explain that it wasn't always like that, recalling countless hours of frustration when the fish weren't biting, but she wasn't having it.

Sometimes we (and when I see "we" I am certainly including myself) approach change, and improvement, in organizations with expectations similar to my daughter's attitude toward fishing.  Hopeful that it will be smooth, happen quickly, and perhaps unaware of the required time, energy, and resources necessary to be successful.  Significant change requires significant investments.

Successfully navigating the change process has many parallels to REAL fishing:    

  • Know what you are doing - it never hurts to know a thing, or two, about what you want to change, or improve.  Be willing to learn.
  • Patience - most organizational change requires effective planning/preparation, time, and concerted effort.  It doesn't happen over night.  
  • Failure - in many cases, new ideas don't go right the first (or second, or third...) time.  Take it in stride.
  • Persistence - successful change efforts require participants to be willing to continue to try something different until they find something that works.  Keep casting.
  • Accept small victories - not every success is a game changer.  Celebrate incremental progress in route to more significant gains.  
Regardless of my daughters feelings, fishing isn't always as easy as it appears.  Neither is change.

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.  ~ Winston Churchill  

Monday, July 22, 2013

Out of the Shadows

cc flickr photo by azjd14

After a brief summer break, our students returned to school today.   Never underestimate the opportunity for a fresh start -- it was a good day.  I was only being slightly facetious when I joked with several staff members that I'm not sure I ever feel more effective as a principal than during the first week of school.  I spent the vast majority of my day, out of my office, helping kids.  Among other things, I answered questions, interpreted schedules, served as a tour guide, listened to stories about summer, explained the lunch special, reassured, and encouraged.  It felt good to really FOCUS on kids.

As I watched our students stream through the front gates at the beginning of the day, I couldn't help but marvel at the diversity of the group -- and be a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of addressing the individual needs of all of these kiddos.  Each one arrives in junior high with their own story, their own history -- a shadow, if you will.  Some are well-prepared, supported, and confident.  They are motivated, and eager to learn.  Their shadows are exactly where they should be -- behind them.  For others, the shadows loom large, eclipsing motivation, and extinguishing hope.  For these students, school must seem a bit like the movie Groundhog Day -- a new year without the promise of change.

How do we help these students come out of the shadows?  It starts with caring adults focusing on building connections.  Relationships are a BIG deal, and we have to treat them as such.  Teachers interested in breaking students out of a negative school cycle will:

  • Get to know their kids -- developing a keen awareness of their past (and present) circumstances, without letting it cloud judgement about the student's future.
  • Be diligent about searching for successes.  They will find a reason to celebrate with every child.
  • Consider the strategies, tools, and resources that can be used to learn about the lives of students, and their personal interests.
  • Reflect on how they will reach out to student's who haven't experienced success in a long time.
  • Ensure that every student (within the first week--if not day--of school) walks away with a personal, and positive, experience.
The late Dr. Rita Pierson had it exactly right when she spoke about the challenges, and joys, of working with kids "in the shadows."  Every child does need a champion.  

Relationships won't change everything, but make no mistake about the fact that little will change without positive relationships.  What else can we do to bring students out of the shadows?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Do Over: 5 Things I'll Do Differently

cc flickr photo by azjd14

I am writing this blog post on the eve of our first day of the 2013-14 school year.  Students return tomorrow.  It is the first post I have written since March 19, 2013 (see When Teaching Gets Tough -- a title that might indicate the reason for the unplanned writing hiatus).  Last year was a challenge.  It was my second year as the principal at Willis Junior High School, and it was a rude awakening to the realities, and demands, of the principalship.  I joked that perhaps, as a first year principal, I was naive to expectations -- moving forward, oblivious to everything I was supposed to be doing.  All of those expectations seemed to catch up with me in my second year.

I recently read a post by David Truss (@datruss), entitled Leadership and Capacity.  His comments really resonated with me and the way I was feeling at the end of the last school year, particularly this quote:
I'm not sure if it is just my personal capacity, or if it is the role of an administrator in this day and age, but I'm really struggling with how much of my job is not about educational leadership, and how much of it is more managerial and even secretarial in nature.
David talks about some advice he was given, suggesting that when things get really busy, it's important to be sure that what falls off "the back of our truck" are "things," and "not people."  It reminded me of the quote by Goethe that has been the tag line for my e-mail for the past year:
Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least. 
I did not do a good job living that quote last year -- seemingly spending an inordinate amount of time chasing after minutiae and treading like crazy to keep my head above water.  As David suggested happened to him, things fell by the wayside, include my social interactions, reflection, and writing.

In his book, God Can't Sleep, author Palmer Chinchen suggests that living a life of busyness is the equivalent of living life in a fog.  He points out that there is no correlation between hurry and productivity, and that all of us could benefit from practice at slowing down.

So, I have decided that I would like a mulligan -- a do over -- and this school year, here are five things that I will do different (drawn from Palmer's suggestions).

  1. Take breaks.  Whether walking through classrooms, eating a healthy lunch, or just taking five minutes to breath deeply, and relax -- I will focus on taking some breaks throughout the day.
  2. Minimize multitasking.  This is a tough one, since in the educational setting things come at you so quickly, but in most cases, multitasking leads to frustration and less productivity.  Focus is better.
  3. Turn off my phone.  I love technology, but laptops, tablets, and smart phones make it nearly impossible to "get away" from my job.  This school year, I am going to set limits, and shut down -- frequent electronic holidays.
  4. Do less.  I am a list addict.  I have tried every task app and program imaginable, searching for that perfect system that will help me manage all I have to do.  The bottom line is that regardless of what I use, I am always trying to do too much.  This year, I am going to narrow my daily lists, and focus on doing things well.     
  5. Fill the day with what is important.  Too often, I find myself at the end of the day with regrets about what I have accomplished.  No more.  In the school setting, this means maximizing my time with students and staff -- the other stuff can wait.
One of the great things about education is the opportunity to begin anew -- each year is a chance for a "do over."  It all begins tomorrow morning.  I'll keep you posted!

Many of you have likely noticed that this is not my normal blog -- Molehills out of Mountains.  In what is probably an unorthodox (and ill advised) move, I have decided to begin anew -- just because it feels like the right thing to do.  I will be posting primarily about education, but also about other things that catch my attention, and inspire me.  So I begin with an audience of zero, and see where the journey takes me.