Saturday, November 7, 2009

Expeditionary Learning on the NewsHour

Follow this link to watch a little bit about Expeditionary Learning on the NewsHour.

Expeditionary Learning Assessment for Learning for Leaders

Reflections on my attendance at Expeditionary Learning Assessment for Learning for Leaders:


I had just about every excuse in the book for not attending the three day Expeditionary Learning for Leaders Institute in Baltimore last week.  I had just attended a god awful mandated by the Virginia Department of Education training for principals of “failing” schools in Williamsburg the previous week (more on that as well) and I did not want to miss more days of school.  We were holding one of parent conference nights during the institute.  I just did not feel like being away.  I had to work on my dissertation.  I could come up with more but that was just bore you.  I did end up going, on the advice of several people close to me, who if I could just sum up what they said it was something like this: “Are you crazy, you love EL workshops, your school would probably like you being gone for a few days, you love Baltimore, just go.”


So, as one who is willing listen to feedback from others, I decided to go. 


Wednesday morning arrived in a smallish meeting room in the Hyatt in downtown Baltimore.  I was surprised by how small the meeting room was.  I immediately looked at the number of chairs in the circle (because that is how we start things at an EL meeting) and there were only sixteen.  My first thought, was one of dread, there will be no hiding at this, no not participating, not just sitting in the back, no just looking at my iphone the entire time.  It is interesting that this immediately fills me with dread is that connection, interaction, learning with a strong social component is what I want, but not necessarily what I ask for or seek out.  It is one of the main reasons I love Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning so much.  It takes the quiet kid ( or quiet adult like me) and makes us participate and learn in a way that we never thought we could. 


So anyway, I made it though that fist circle, but interesting, so little of it was about what we did, how long we have done it for, what school we lead, etc. that it actually just helps us deal with each.  A community began to came together in that first circle and built over three days where there was a high level of sharing, problem solving, supporting, listening, and laughing between sixteen virtual strangers.  Pretty cool.


The purpose of the workshop was to get school leaders at expeditionary schools to use principles of assessment for learning (primarily developed for the classroom) with staffs and individual teachers.  We did this by analyzing the assessment for learning strategies, looking at different kinds of change, research on relational trust,  reading parts of different texts including parts of the book Quiet Leadership by David Rock, and using what we learned to develop some sort of plan or idea for a plan to further strengthen assessment for learning strategies through coaching.  All of this was accomplished in three days with only one “presentation” that lasted just about ten minutes.  All of the other time was used with the instructional techniques of discussion, different grouping strategies, group initiatives, individual thinking time, reading and reflection, feedback protocols, and just plain deep thought coupled with social group learning.  It was a powerful learning experience.


The biggest aha I had for my own school context was that despite all of the gains and growth our school has made in various areas, we are still have a feedback poor learning culture for adults in the building.  This comes from various different areas but mostly from me.  I am somewhat feedback adverse for whatever reason.  Part of the institute had me develop an action plan for my work at Greer.  I won’t bore you with the specific details about this plan except that it has us trying to put some structures and protocols together to help our coaches actually coach and allow teachers to peer coach each other.  Just as important or even more importantly for myself, it has me forcing myself to improve my ability to give feedback by just doing it.  We will see how it goes.


I am riding kind of a learner’s high right now which is powerful enough to last for my than just a little while.  It is always a struggle to keep these experiences lasting but it is worth a try.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What has happened lately with our EL implementation?

It has been a while since last posting.  During that time I have been busy with life and writing my dissertation.  Which is slowly starting to take shape.  Some things have happened with our Expeditionary Learning implementation during the past few weeks as well.  

Lisa and I decided with our EL school designer Ken that we would start our journey with EL through work with learning targets, not implementing the signature focus of EL which is learning expeditions.  Grade level teams working with learning targets looks and feels like doing the basics but our hope is that it gives grade levels a solid foundation of designing meaningful learning experiences with students and implementing an assessment system that involves students in their learning.  Each grade level and our specials teachers were able to work with Ken for a half day of release time.  Our plan is to have a half day release day every month for grade levels to work through curriculum and designing learning investigations.  So, we got started on this goal.  Some teams ran with it further than others, but each team got to wrestle with the work which was mainly our goal for the first few days.  Ken will follow up with teams next week on Thursday with shorter meetings during their 45 minute team meeting block to see how the work has progressed.  Lisa and I will focus our walkthroughs on learning targets as well.  I think it was a relief for the work to begin.  There was anxiety present with many on the staff about what were we going to do with Expeditionary Learning and through some purposeful, focused time, we were able to start on the work.  We really want the staff to start seeing the work with EL as our school improvement work, not some separate entity but I realize that will take a while.

We have had another new development last week with our students.  We held our first school wide morning meeting.  We held this meeting with all 45o students on a Friday morning and it combined our work with Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning.  We went through the process of a typical morning meeting, first doing the pledge and minute of silence and then doing the greeting, announcements, energizer, sharing, and closing activity.  It was truly a special morning for us.  I know a school wide assembly is really nothing special and every school has them but to see all of the kids going through the process of the morning meeting, and embracing the aspects with our teachers and staff, was really special.  I think it really made me feel how far we had come in the past few years.  The agenda for this meeting was developed by Lisa and some teacher leaders and it really worked well.  But part of my reflection on it was that two years ago we could not have had this meeting, last year we really were not ready, but finally this year we were.  Hopefully it can continue successfully as teams pick up the hosting duties, it will get better most likely, but it really was a special moment for our school.

Lastly, I want to comment on the work of our committees.  Committees are new to Greer, at least during my time and we have our committees focused on every academic and cultural aspect of our school.  It is messy work, and hard work, but I am starting to see some progress with it, and will update more next week when they meet again.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Slow Pace of Change

At Greer this year, we are beginning the long, slow journey of becoming an Expeditionary Learning school.  As noted in previous posts, this is something I have been interested in being involved in for a long time.  Here are some of the steps we have taken since last spring:
1.  About ten of us visited an EL school, Russell Byers, in Philadelphia.
2.  We had a two day, all staff retreat that focused on EL learning and principles of collaboration.
3.  Four of our staff attended a week long EL reading seminar in July.
4.  Twenty five of our staff attended a week long Responsive Classroom training in July.
5.  Eight of our staff attended an Intro to EL learning experience in August.
6.  Working with our school designer, we designed much of our pre-service week around developing a committee structure that are built on the Core Practice Benchmarks of EL and have worked hard to continue momentum of the seven committees.

Ok, we are now a month in, why don't we look and feel like an EL school yet?  I say that with a broad grin on my face but sometimes I feel that "change expectations" in our world are so quick.  I partially think this is true with the fast pace of technological change in our society, we feel that other changes need to happen as fast.  

Anyway, why is change so slow?

The first thing I want to say is that I am not one of those "blame the teachers" principals.  I hate that.  If you spend your time blaming the teachers for everything, you should get another job.If things are not working for you as a principal at your school, blame yourself!
  One of the reasons we are going slow is because of me.  Greer experienced huge gains in reading and math test scores this past year and I am terrified of implementing new and deep changes quickly and losing that success.  Why else is it a slow change?  Developing an EL school is a craft, a slow one, and involved craftmanship at the teacher level and at the principal level.  It is a theme throughout Ron Berger's Ethic of Excellence which I read last spring and we bought for every teacher at Greer this summer.  I found myself re-reading it again this morning.  Changing school culture, valuing people in the process, protecting and improving student achievement, engaging everyone in a new vision and mission, take a long, long time.  It is important to keep reminding myself of how much we have already done this year when in the face of how much more we have left on our journey.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Fresh Fruit and Veggies for Greer

Greer won a grant this year from the USDA to provide fresh fruit and veggies as snacks twice a week to all of our kids and adults in the building.  We started last week with raspberries and peaches, both from local farms.  

Trying to follow one of my many important rules of the principalship (that would be do fun  things when you have the chance to do them) Lisa and I went around school delivering these snacks to excited kids.  

We have some details to work out like getting kids to do the deliveries and delivering the snacks at times that are not disruptive to the learning process in the classrooms but it has been a fun grant to implement so far.  Snack time seems like a great time to sneak the healthy stuff at kids because it is not competing with chicken nuggets, french fries, pizza etc. on a lunch tray.  It just is there all by itself and teachers have been great about getting kids to "just try" things.  I have to love all of the money we have been getting from the federal government this year.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Motivates Us? Greer's Own Race to the Top

I wish some people would watch Dan Pink's recent presentation on motivation on Ted Talks website.  Who?  Policy makers for one, from my own school division all the way to Arne Duncan's office, or anyone who wants to incentivize teacher and principal performance in the hope of more accountability, better results, and more innovation.

Dan Pink lays out the case simply.  Incentives do help us perform simple tasks in a more effective manner.  The more complex the task or job becomes, incentives actually begin to have a negative impact on innovation, problem solving, and creativity.  Do these policy makers see teaching and leading as simple tasks or complex ones?  Hmm, makes you wonder.

What does help improve motivation?

Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.
Mastery: The desire to get better at something that matters.
Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Race to the top federal funds and our own school system are looking for ways to improve teacher performance through incentives and more accountability.  Why don't we look for ways to increase autonomy, mastery, and purpose in our schools?  And yes, I do realize that true autonomy does not mean you just do whatever you want.  The reason we do not is that there is no trust, or there are very low levels of it in the education world.  Many studies show that one of the most important indicators of school improvement is the high level of trust in a school building.

Why don't we commit to expanding trust in our schools?  I have written in the past about expanding the amount of time that teachers, teams, and schools have to plan quality instruction and experiences for students.  Why do we never look to improve professional time?  Because for the most part educators are not trusted by policy makers to use that time wisely.  All of our actions should have a sense of purpose at their foundation and that is where our focus should be.

The notion of motivation leads me to a great article in the Sunday NYtimes about one teacher implementing Reader's Workshop in a middle school.  Reader's workshop allows students more autonomy, choice, mastery, and probably a sense of purpose.  The article is very realistic though.  Many of the students, especially the boys, were not motivated by the new instruction technique.  Was it because they had been in school for eight years already and had never experience this kind of instruction?  I don't know, but I do know we need to begin to implement these kinds of strategies in our schools with kids and adults too.

Greer is going to learn about Reader's workshop this year in our relationship with Expeditionary Learning.  We are trying to increase levels of trust and collaboration among adults in our school.  

I have decided that it is our own "Race to the Top".  I just wish people making policy had spent time in successful schools that try to improve the conditions of students and adults through trust.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Read this book!

Read this book!  Zeitoun by Dave Eggers does not have much to do with education, but it is a great non-fiction read about the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the War on Terror on one family in New Orleans.  This is an amazing, simple, and powerful book.  I read it just in the past day.  

Dave Eggers is growing on me: and interesting interview here and a great TED talk about his after school writing program 826 Valencia.   

In the interview he predicts that current kids will still be reading newspapers and books some day.  I love when people go against the grain of the digital age.  He says that kids he works with love to see their writing in actual print publications.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The First Week Back For Teachers

Greer teachers have been back for almost a week and we have been busily getting ready for the return of our students on Tuesday, August 25.  Most of our time has been spent just getting the building ready because about half of our teachers were unpacking from renovations etc.  We have spent some time together as a staff though putting our direction forward for the school year.

This year, as part of our learning about Expeditionary Learning, we have formed a new committee structure set up around the EL Core Practice Benchmarks.  The five benchmarks are:
1.  Learning Expeditions
2. Active Pedagogy
3. Character and Culture
4. Leadership and School Improvement
5. Structures

Since we are just in the learning stage about EL, teachers will not be implementing learning expeditions this year.  Our seven committees will have the following focus:
1.  Active Pedagogy- Reading Focus
2. Active Pedagogy- Writing/Content Integration Focus
3. Active Pedagogy- Math and Technology Focus
4. Character and Culture- Student Focus
5. Character and Culture- Community Focus
6. Leadership and School Improvement- Decision Making
7. Structures- Communication

What we did first with the help of our EL school designer, Ken Ferguson, was have teachers learn about the EL core practice benchmarks through some building background knowledge activities.  Then teachers rated which committee they would want to serve on for the year and we started meeting with some framing questions provided by Lisa and I.  The committees will meet again on Monday to continue their work and share out with staff.  One of our "late" days each month will be dedicated to committee work.

These committees will each serve the various roles as think tank groups, prof. development planners, and "getting things done" folks for projects in the school.  These committees will involve all staff members in the school.

This is hardly revolutionary thinking or "innovative" (by the way, the word innovation is coming oh so close to jumping the shark it is not even funny).  Most schools have some sort of committee structure.

Some lingering questions remain for me with this structure:

How do committees communicate to each other?
If everyone is involved, how do we deal with folks who really don't want to be a part of things, or get in the way of movement forward?  
How do we keep from committee balkanization i.e. committees bumping into each other or getting in the way of each other's work?
How do decisions get made in the long run and short run?

I will keep you updated but there was an awesome energy in the building this week and in open house Thursday night.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

How Greer did it

Here is an excerpt from our school division's recent press release about AYP results:

 Greer Elementary School had a 13 percentage point gain in overall reading performance, moving from 78 percent pass rate in 07-08 to a 91.42 percent pass rate in 08-09. Performance by black students at Greer Elementary surged from 59 percent in 07-08 to 85 percent in 08-09. Greer Elementary also posted a 21.5 percentage point gain in reading for economically disadvantaged students, a 15 percentage point gain for Hispanic students and a 25 percentage point gain for students with disabilities in reading performance. Greer reported more than 25 percentage point gains in mathematics performance for black students, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students. 

“Last year, Greer Elementary did not make AYP, and in 2008-09 it is one of our top performing elementary schools, while also being our most diverse,” Haun said. “Their focused efforts on improving student achievement and creating a culture of success have really paid off. We will be looking to replicate the initiatives Greer has successfully piloted in schools across the Division.” "

So, now I can finally write about this because it is not all embargoed from the state department.

How did we pull it off?

Here is the short list that will be expanded on when I have more time.

1.  People (teachers, staff, kids) worked their butts off.  Nothing replaces good old fashioned hard work and their was just a plain amount of great effort from everyone involved.
2.  We tried to keep focused on the important things, like relationships.  Our school division espouses rigor, relevance, and relationships but sometimes a school under the intense focus of NCLB and AYP can focus simply only on rigor as their way to improve achievement.  Last year, every class held a morning meeting every single day and staff learned about elements of Responsive Classroom throughout the year.
3.  We focused on writing, and writing is thinking.  We implemented the Being a Writer program in every class, every grade and even though writing is not part of AYP measurements kids wrote vast amounts more than they did in previous years and we feel that it impacted every area of learning.
4.  We focused on student learning data in a more frequent, "real-time" manner.   Upper grade teams used quick, every two week assessments in reading and math to gauge student learning and make adjustments.  I think this probably had the largest impact on pacing of instruction more than anything else.
5.  We trusted the process of producing a school improvement plan through the involvement many and then followed and adjusted in a more strategic manner throughout the year.  Probably the smartest thing we ever did was hold a staff retreat in June last summer right after our poor scores came out.  We laid out the reality, put forth some non-negotiables and dreams for the school, and tried to empower people to answer the age-old question, "how do we get there?"

As I make this list, one of the cool things about it to me is that with every single point, we have a long way to go.  We have in no way arrived and our quest to make Mary Carr Greer Elementary an exemplary school in this state and country will involve working the above list and adding many other important school improvement strategies on our journey.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why do you teach?

There was a thought provoking essay in Sunday's Washington Post by Sarah Fine titled "Schools need teachers like me.  I just can't stay."   I can't say I agree with everything in the essay but I do have to say that it really got me thinking about the profession of teaching.  After four years of teaching in a DC high school, she quits for some of the usual reasons: long hours, low pay, unsupportive, unimaginative, and undemocratic administration.  But she cites another reason which took some bravery to admit.  The low esteem the teaching and principal profession gets from her peers, ivy league grads etc.  Excerpt below.

"Why teach?" they ask.

Do my lawyer and consultant friends find themselves having to explain why they chose their professions? I doubt it. Everyone seems to know why they do what they do. When people ask me about teaching, however, what they really seem to mean is that it's unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long. Teaching is an admirable and, well, necessary profession, they say, but it's not for the ambitious. "It's just so nice," was the most recent version I heard, from a businesswoman sitting next to me on a plane.

I used to think I was being oversensitive. Not so. One of my former colleagues, now a program director for Teach for America, has to defend her goal of becoming a principal: "When I tell people I want to do it, they're like, 'Really? You really still want to do that?' " Another friend describes her struggle to make peace with the fact that a portion of the American public sees teaching as a second-rate profession. "I want to be able to do big things and be recognized for them," she says. "In the world we live in, teaching doesn't cut it."

I often feel the same way. Teaching is a grueling job, and without the kind of social recognition that accompanies professions such as medicine and law, it is even harder for ambitious young people like me to stick with it."

Now, what she says it totally true.  I entered teaching through Teach for America, every one of my friends entered non education professions, and I still have many friends who aren't in the business.  I have felt that from many people.  Not necessarily disdainful, more like, why the hell do you do that.  But the longer I have stuck with it, and the better I have become at it, and the more involved in my profession I have become, the less I feel the disdain.  Even though I have no complaints about my job, there are times that I feel that peers of mine are making way more money, getting more respect, with the same skill set that I have.  Those times are far outweighed though by how much I love my job.

The Sarah Fine essay made me sad.  Sad that she is leaving teaching, sad that her administrators don't do more to understand instruction and involve teachers in the work of improving the school, but also sad that she did not stick it out a little longer to see that the whole worrying about what my ivy league friends think of my profession is no way to live a life.  

She ends her essay with some discussion of a last reason for leaving teaching: it does not satisfy the millenial generation's need to be engaged.

She writes:  "In their book "Millennials Rising: the Next Great Generation," sociologistsNeil Howe and William Strauss characterize the members of my generation as "engaged," "upbeat" and "achievement-oriented." This is why we become teachers. We seek to challenge ourselves, and we excel at pursuing our goals. Howe and Strauss go so far as to call us a "hero generation." Our engagement also explains why we are leaving the classroom. We are not used to feeling consistently defeated and systemically undervalued."

I would add that not wanting to be consistently defeated or systemically undervalued is not something that hurts millenials, it hurts human beings in general.  Maybe people of other generations stuck with the defeat and undervaluation because they had mortgages to pay and mouths to feed other than their own and their back up plan was not traveling and writing for a year, it was retraining and paying for that retraining in a whole new field or career.  

But that might just be my 37 year old, "generation X" self talking there, I don't want to spoil the youngsters their pain.

Obviously though, despite some minor quibbles with the essay and/or the youth of it all, what she writes about it all to true.  Teachers too often are treated as if they were the problem in our education system and too often we don't support them enough, or listen to them, or make the workplace a vibrant place to  be.  As a principal, I don't always live up to these expectations myself, but at least I try to remind myself of them every once in a while.  And I will try to do my best to engage and value not only the millenial teachers at my school but the other ones as well.  Thanks for the essay Sarah.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Is it Scalable?

It seems that many of us school administrators who are writing through blogs right now are really interested in education policy.  There are probably two reasons for that:  one is that we are all really well versed in the current policies of No Child Left Behind and they have had a major impact in all of our professional lives and more importantly the lives of students and two is that we have a new president and secretary of education who have us all interested in what is going on and what changes lie ahead in our future.
Sometimes principals go to a conference and are implored by the various speakers to raise our collective voice when it comes to policy, especially with No Child Left Behind and now with the current conversation of national standards and experimenting with merit pay.  I follow these policy conversations as close as I can or that time allows but for some reason I find myself getting less and less intellectually interested in all of the debates.  Why?
I am helping to lead a change effort at Greer Elementary of learning about and implementing Expeditionary Learning in our school.  Expeditionary learning is a network of about 150 schools across the country and it essentially offers intensive support and professional development to schools in its network.  It is criticized at times for not being scalable?  It is intensive work that requires deft and authentic leadership by more people than administration, and requires us all to be very thoughtful about what we do with kids.  We are finding again and again that these things are not scalable in the current education policy debates and think tanks.
When I hear this I wish instead that we spent more time talking about how to replicate the kind of education the Obama children are getting than how to pay teachers differently.  How do we support more schools to be thoughtful, reflective, accountable, authentic?  I have no idea but I find little discussion of how to actually do this myself, let alone across the country.
What are the things that are scalable in our country right now?  Fast food, pop culture, Starbucks, etc.  Is this what we want to replicate in education? 
Is expeditionary learning scalable?  I don't care.  But we need to look at why reforms like expeditionary learning are so difficult to implement and make those systemic changes instead of just looking at the things that won't directly effect kids.  
I know I have to work on my thinking a bit more with this and will try in some posts in the future.  I guess I am just tired of us all implementing changes that make us feel better but don't impact what we believe about learning and what we do on a day to day basis with kids.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Crew from Greer Elementary goes to Baltimore

For five years in the 90s, I was a fourth and fifth grade teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools.  It was my first job out of college and still remains the hardest thing I have ever done in my career.  I never had a class of under 35 students, never had enough books, was lucky to have enough desks, and taught in an elementary school of almost 1000 students.  In retrospect, the stress and difficulty of trying to reach that high number of students day in and day out was almost unimaginable.  But I did love it, and I was pretty good at it too.  A movie will never be made of my teaching days but I did care, and I wrote the grants for books, and tried to do my best for the class.  But still, despite all of that, it was never really right.  That many kids should never have been in a class together.  I still vividly remember those days like they were yesterday, I remember what my classroom looked like, smelled like, and I still have what I call Baltimore dreams of being back in my class.
To relieve the stress, I would often go on long walks with Jeannette.  One of our favorites was walking the Harbor walk from Fells Point to the Inner Harbor and back.  In those days, the Harbor walk was not all connected and instead of walking past high rise condo towers, you usually walked past vacant lots or decaying structures that had not yet been Inner Harborized.  One of the anchors of the walk was going past the Living Classrooms Foundation, right on the water at the foot of Lancaster street and Caroline I think.  I did not know much about, this was pre-internet, so I could not really look it up, but I always thought to myself as I walked past, that place looks really cool.  It was two well designed buildings, with a dock, with various boats attached.  From the little I knew, it was where active learning took place.  I knew I needed to do something different than what I was doing in my school, and that little highlight on the Harbor walk would always remind me of something different than a classroom of 35 plus kids that I was just trying to bring some sort of kindness and control to.  
Well, to make a long story short, my principal in Baltimore did one cool thing with me by letting me run the summer school for a couple of years.  I ran it like my own little Living Classrooms Foundation, with field trips, and interdisciplinary projects, and engaged learning environments.  It was never a total success, but it helped me start to see what I could do.
I came down to Charlottesville to officially learn to become a principal at UVA.  From there, I became an assistant principal then an elementary principal where I was doing a good job, but not following my dream of what the Living Classrooms Foundation represented to me.  What did it represent anyway?  Kids doing real things, kids outside of the classroom, kids interacting with their environment, kids making connections with adults from the real world.  
Why this boring, maudlin trip down memory lane?  Because I am starting to walk my leadership's knife's edge a little bit, and am working on Greer becoming an expeditionary learning school.  As part of that, we have created some summer learning experiences for some of our teachers and right now, seven of our amazing teachers and our wonderful assistant principal are in Baltimore getting ready for an experience with expeditionary learning and, you guessed it, the Living Classrooms Foundation.  Even though I am not there, the significance to me is incredible.  In fact, it really just hit me today how I cannot really believe that I am taking steps with staff to make this happen.  That twenty something teacher who walked past that classroom on the harbor every week and thought, there has got to be a better way, now is a late thirty something principal working with some kids who need this kind of learning just as much as kids in Baltimore did.  It is scary to put myself out there, and scary to be finally doing what I have always wanted to do.  This will be an interesting year to see how it all pans out, but I am just going to enjoy the moment right now about this experience happening for several of our staff members.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Kids, Outdoors, and Unstructured Activity

Two essays recently had me thinking again of the power of nature and the outdoors for kids.  First is Michael Chabon's recent essay in the New York Review of Books.  In it he describes his suburban childhood in the late sixties and seventies of exploring the woods behind his house and having lots of time for playing with friends without the supervision of parents or other adults. 

The second is Nicholas Kristof in the NyTimes today with an essay about his hiking trip with his 11 year old daughter. His family goes on yearly backpacking trips and he talks about the power of the outdoors on his kids.

Just two childhood remembrances these essays brought up.  Most of my playtime growing up after a certain age, 9 or ten maybe, was leaving the house in the morning on a weekend or summer day and coming back at dinner time.  Most of that time was spent playing pick up games of baseball, basketball, and football.  I went up until high school when organized sports took over.  I think my friends and I enjoyed our games much more than the organized ones for the most part and we were able to solve our problems without intervention usually.  Or when we couldn't, the kid who owned the ball or bat or other necessary equipment just picked it up and went home.  This seems to be lost through the fault of no one but still makes me sad.

The other is starting in high school going on canoeing trips with my dad and other teens from the church in Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario every August.  It was an incredibly powerful experience for a teenager and has influenced me my entire life.

How do we make this happen in school more often, or at least my school?  More on that soon.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Feeling Rejuvenated

Why?  I just spent Monday and Tuesday of this week at a state department of education conference for schools that are in formal school improvement who have applied for and won money to use for school improvement coaching.  The money is awesome, they are letting us use it in a way that makes sense for our school.  We just have to attend some dry meetings.  Two days in a huge ballroom sitting in round tables with water pitchers in the middle and fake chandeliers on the ceiling.  Yes, I think you get the picture.  I actually think that I am going to dedicate the rest of my career in education to avoiding "learning situations" that in ballrooms in generic hotels across this great land of ours.  It is a pretty hateful place to try and learn something.  Especially when the learning is looking at a powerpoint and flipping through a notebook.  Page by page.  You get the picture.  Except that the state is empowering us as schools to figure our own ways through the school improvement process which is awesome for me as a leader who definitely has strong views on how to do this.  But I guess that you are not feeling the rejuvenation part yet.

Across town this week, twenty five of our teachers are attending a Responsive Classroom week long training with twenty five other teachers from various division schools.  I finally was freed up to today to attend and I immediately remembered why this is so important.  The social aspect of learning is as important as the academic aspect.  Responsive classroom gets that.  It really does.  The day ended up with our staff in a circle on the floor singing a song and playing a game.  Our assistant superintendent and chief information officer happened to drop by at that very moment and were goaded into joining on the floor.  That is why it is important.  There is a point to all of this and building a community in a school or a school division takes work but it also takes fun and play as well.  

Sunday, July 26, 2009

One thought from EduStat University

I attended Edustat University last week in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia right down the road from my home at Monticello High School.  Often times, I will attend a big conference and come away with just a few random thoughts.  Well, one thought I came away with is how teachers' professional lives are structured here in our country.  In Tony Wagner's keynote, he spent a bit of time on international comparisons.  America, as we are well aware, is well behind many or most of the industrialized world in terms of student achievement in all academic areas.  We are also well behind in another factor, according to Wagner: teacher planning time.  In Finland, the top performing education nation in the world, allows teachers to meet and plan for about 40% of their paid time.  Now, I am sure that time is well focused and well used, or Finland would not be the best in the world.  But, they can't use the time if it is not there.  In our country, I would hazard to guess based on my limited knowledge that teachers teach (meaning responsible for many children) about 80% of their day have 20% left to plan, meet, and reflect both individually and collaboratively.  We never talk about this issue in this country.  In fact, we tend to highlight successful charter schools where teachers teach at the same 80/20 ratio for even longer days (and have high percentages of burnout).  What about schools that focus on teacher learning as much as it does student learning but holds teachers and administrators to high levels of accountability.  Wouldn't this be "innovation" as well or just another bone thrown to "lazy" teachers who already have two months off in the summer and have those darn unions over protecting them.  Why are we so afraid to learn from more successful structures and innovations in other countries?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Things that may affect student achievement

Link to an American Prospect article which I do not have full access to.  Just reading the heading has me interested.  I always remember from my teaching days in Baltimore in the nineties.  I taught on average about 35 kids every year in my fifth grade class.  On average, probably one of those kids wore glasses consistently.  Visit an upper middle class school and check out a fifth grade class and see how many kids are wearing glasses.  There is probably a difference.

More on Data from Meier

One of my favorite blogs is "Bridging Differences" and Deborah Meier is one of my education heroes.  This latest post of hers delves into some of the issues with data these days.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

More of the Moyers interview of David Simon

From the transcript of the April 17, 2009 interview:
DAVID SIMON: Well, and facts-- one of the themes of THE WIRE really was that statistics will always lie. That I mean statistics can be made to say anything.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, one of my favorite scenes, in Season Four, we get to see the struggling public school system in Baltimore, through the eyes of a former cop who's become a schoolteacher. In this telling scene, he realizes that state testing in the schools is little more than a trick he learned on the police force. It's called "juking the stats." Take a look.


ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL: So for the time being, all teachers will devote class time to teaching language arts sample questions. Now if you turn to page eleven, please, I have some things I want to go over with you.

ROLAND "PREZ" PRYZBYLEWSKI: I don't get it, all this so we score higher on the state tests? If we're teaching the kids the test questions, what is it assessing in them?

TEACHER: Nothing, it assesses us. The test scores go up, they can say the schools are improving. The scores stay down, they can't.

PREZ: Juking the stats.

TEACHER: Excuse me?

PREZ: Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and major become colonels. I've been here before.

TEACHER: Wherever you go, there you are.


DAVID SIMON: You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on. And as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is. And this comes down to Wall Street. I mean, our entire economic structure fell behind the idea that these mortgage-based securities were actually valuable. And they had absolutely no value. They were toxic. And yet, they were being traded and being hurled about, because somebody could make some short-term profit. In the same way that a police commissioner or a deputy commissioner can get promoted, and a major can become a colonel, and an assistant school superintendent can become a school superintendent, if they make it look like the kids are learning, and that they're solving crime. And that was a front row seat for me as a reporter. Getting to figure out how the crime stats actually didn't represent anything, once they got done with them.

I have been a huge fan of the Wire.  I miss that it will never be on television again and I am not quite sure if we will ever have another show like it.  It may resonate with me personally because of my experience teaching in Baltimore Public Schools in the nineties.  I always felt that the above excerpted scene was always a bit simplistic in my mind.  It may be a defensive posture on my part, because I have played the part of the "assistant principal" many a time, in many a meeting with teachers imploring them to focus on test structure and language with students.  It may also be that I have always felt that the "teaching to the test" line has not always rung true to me.  I have always thought that you should, as an educator, want students to do well on anything that is put in front of them, including the state tests.

That all being said, I do agree with much of what Simon says about stats in general.  Joe Klein, chancellor of New York schools, Arne Duncan, and other big name leaders in american schools throw around stats a lot these days.  Future posts will cover some of the "juking" that is going on, and also a concern about the current focus on merit pay for teachers.  And of course, more Wire stuff.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Wire- Watch this!

If you love the Wire and miss it, or if you have no idea about it, watch this Bill Moyers video journal.  It is an interview with David Simon.  I have been mulling over the idea of doing some writing about the Wire, this has inspired me.  Watch this and stay tuned.  The interview shows some of the best clips from the five seasons of the show and some great commentary from David Simon, especially in regards to today's headlines.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Expeditionary Learning

I was able to attend the Expeditionary Learning (EL) national conference in Baltimore last Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  It was an amazing learning experience for me.  EL has been around since 1992 and got its start from an idea to transfer some of the learning principles of Outward Bound into classrooms and schools.  It now has a few hundred schools in the national, both regular public and charter.  I have had a personal interest in EL for many years now, but that interest never really went beyond reading books, articles, and looking at their website.  Attending the conference has increased that interest about ten fold.  I tend to be pretty cynical about conferences in general.  They seem like a lot of money, there is a cattle call mentality to them, and I am generally suspicious of people who become, for lack of better words, professional presenters.  This conference was completely different. 

They utilized as many of their design principles as they could in a conference setting and as a result I was more engaged and learned far more than a typical conference.  We were all assigned to a "crew" as in "there are no passengers, we are all crew" which comes from Outward Bound.  We engaged daily with our crew members.  Every session was led by current practitioners, teachers and principals, and I don't think I saw one powerpoint the whole time I was there.  Each session had an agenda and posted learning targets and utilized active learning strategies.  All in all, an amazing experience and for this normally shy guy, I interacted with way more people than I ever would have because of those strategies.  I am going to share more EL thoughts as time goes by but just had to write briefly about this experience joining an adult learning "crew".

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Bill Gates on Education at the TED conference

Bill Gates recently gave a speech at the TED conference on what he is working on in his quest to change the world.  If you move the video player forward to the 8 minute mark past all of that saving millions of lives fighting malaria part you will get to his talk on education.  The Gates Foundation has focused over the past nine years on scholarships, small schools, and libraries and now his focus is on teacher quality.  He is dead on with both the power of good teachers and that the typical things that teacher's get paid more for,experience and master's degrees do not necessarily make a teacher more effective.  In this short talk, he discusses factors that he feels would improve teacher quality: lessening the influence of unions, using data more effectively through collaboration between teachers and as an evaluation tool, and the use of video analysis of teaching strategies.  He then highlights KIPP charter schools as an ideal entity to emulate in this quest to improve teacher quality.  I do have issues with KIPP.  I don't think it is scalable, I worry about its over reliance on young/pre-family teachers, and students, although they are all poor, choose to go there and some quit.  I do not have issues with the fact that KIPP itself is trying to be and is successful at innovation.  Now I just have a challenge for myself.  Find or create and present alternatives to KIPP as the one and only innovative force in education today.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Call me Arne

This is a great link to the Talking Points Memo written by I think an anonymous Education Department staffer on Arne Duncan's first few days in office.  I never weighed in on the whole education secretary debates of a month or so ago.  I was very pleased to not see NYC chancellor Joe Klein not be named (just too many darn bad things written and said about him) and understood why Linda Darling Hammond was not picked (too academic, too much of an enemy to the TFA/self important education reform crowd).  The Duncan pick made sense.  There was too much written about him that said things like he was a good leader, he was able to both reform schools and work with the teachers' union in Chicago.  When those things are written about someone over and over, there has to be some truth in it.  He seems to mirror Obama's predilection/obsession with bipartisanship and bringing a sense of unity to to our divided political world.  Duncan's job though is bridging the divide between education reform camps within the Democratic party but needless to say it will be very interesting to see Obama/Duncan and all the rest try this way of doing things.

I just love the story of Arne eating in the cafeteria and walking around and introducing himself to staffers at the department.  It is what a good or natural leader does when new in a situation.  What is even more striking is that this seemed to have never occured under Paige and Spellings.  I good friend of mine who is a career state department employee said the same thing about Bush's higher ups.  They had absolutely no interest in developing relationships or trying to work with career government employees and treated many people around them as simply objects to lecture at and point fingers at etc. It is good to see that attitude gone for the next few years.  Good luck Arne.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sir Ken Robinson speaks out (again)

Sir Ken Robinson has a great post on the Huffington Post website.  I only now Sir Ken from his TED speech on schooling and creativity that has found some fame on youtube (I was originally linked up to the speech but one of our Bright Stars teachers in our school).  The speech is funny, entertaining, and dead on.  The post is just plain dead on.  Again though, how does a high accountability system work with schools that are trying to also foster high levels of creativity.  Do the two coexist?  I know every school leader in the country is hopefully trying to figure that out, I know I am.  You can't help but listen to Sir Ken and be inspired by the possibility of it all but also confronted with the brutal reality that we often just muck it up in our attempt to improve things in large, whole scale fashion like NCLB.

By the way, on a personal note, I have always been a bit of an anglophile dating back to my semester in London in college and then bolstered over the years by a love of both ales from the British Isles and BBC spy and mystery dramas.  You just have to love the whole knighting thing, don't you.  How can we get the whole Sir/Dame thing over here?  

Quote from on NCLB

From the White House website, when you click on agenda and then education. "Obama and Biden believe teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests."

Is that what we are doing when we prepare students for the end of year tests in third, fourth, and fifth grades.  We are also teaching them reading and math, science and social studies.  When I look at the Virginia math test at any level, I want my students to pass it.  It is a pretty good multiple choice test.  I have more issues with the Virginia reading test, which goes beyond reading skills I feel and with a small part of the test assessing students on how well they use encyclopedias and other reference materials, which I would like to add, in this century students pretty much will never use.  

But with our school facing daunting pressure to meet AYP in both reading and math, how often are we just preparing students to master the material and how often are we teaching them to outsmart the test or practice filling in bubbles.  I would like to say we always focus on the former but when the pressure is on, we also want to make sure students know how to take a test.  That appears to be what Obama and Biden don't want but under this current system, when pressure is high, that kind of teaching does occur in any school in this country.  How do we have accountability for schools without multiple choice tests or having students practice filling in the bubbles?  I encourage you to check out the White house website and I will have to watch and see what Obama/Biden mean when they put quotes like the one above on their website.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

MIke Rose on the current state of education policy

Since I post to this blog somewhat infrequently, I end up having more blog posts in my head than are actually written on the screen.  I have been working up to actually writing a post about the "debate" about who will be the next Secretary of Education, then the naming of Arne Duncan to the post, and finally just about all of the education policy talking heads in the media lately discussing what needs to be done.  Well, in waiting to get my lazy butt in gear to write this post, Mike Rose, a far better thinker and writer than I, wrote it.  Check it out on his blog.  Wow!  It pretty much hit how I have been feeling lately.  I haven't even read any of his books during my career but I certainly will now.  I don't actually agree with everything on his blog, I actually support different aspects of NCLB, especially the focus on achievement of all groups of students. But all of the education policy mavens of late have been driving me a bit crazy.  I was having trouble putting it into words.  Mike Rose did it beautifully.  So few of these people have ever taught.  So few of these people have ever ran a school.  And they always know how it should be done.  The thing about his post that made me laugh with recognition was that he was reacting to the same NPR piece on education that made me crazy too as I was driving around one day doing errands.  Here is the story.  It is not actually a "Letter to the President" piece but just an update on education in Obama's administration.  For some reason, the story made me scream.  Mike Rose helped.  Enough said.

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Year's Resolutions Oh My!

I usually try to avoid making New Year's resolutions.  Like most people, they really don't work for me and since this blog has more of a professional focus I really don't want to list a bunch of things that I may or may not actually be able to follow through on.  And being on the school/acadademic calendar since I was five, I never really view January as the start of the year. 
Despite all of this,  here are few fun resolutions for my life as a principal.

1.  Finish my dissertation in the 2009 calendar year.  Ok, maybe not so fun but I really have to get this done.  I have been able to work on it some during winter break this year and it feels good to be doing that.  Finding the time once the school year gets going again will be tough but I will apprise you all of my adventures with time management.

2. Get the children's garden and hiking trail going at my school.  I should not describe these things as solely my responsibility because they certainly are not but I am a big fan of the good old great outdoors.  I have skimmed the book about Nature Deficit Disorder ( I am capitalizing it because I will pretend that we can really diagnose people with this illness) and kids need to be outdoor more, in the woods, planting stuff, etc.  We have made some headway on this already this school year and we hope to make more.

3.   For my next resolution, I am not sure how to describe it exactly.  For a professional development day earlier this school year, we had Steven Levy of Starting from Scratch and Expeditionary Learning fame speak to all of the elementary schools.  Anyway, I won't get into his presentation that much except for one thing.  He talked about how he sang every day with his class and how it built community.  With our implementation of Responsive Classroom this year, there is more community building type activities and in a few classrooms more singing.  We need to do more with singing because the kids seem to absolutely love it.  And I am not talking about music class, I am talking in homeroom morning meetings.   It brings me to a This I Believe link on NPR in which Brian Eno (awesome music producer) discusses his belief in communal singing.

4.  I need to bring technology more into my professional life and the lives of our students.  I will post more about this one later.

Those are all of my resolutions for right now.

Ok, one more.

More visuals in this blog!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Education Speakers and Professional Development

One of my favorite education blogs is Dangerously Irrelevant by Scott McLeod.  He is a professor of Education Leadership at Iowa State University and just all around great questioner of the way we do things in education.  Please read the posts Beware Outside Consultants part I, II, and III.

I am not aware of the first person but have attended workshops by Ruby Payne and the DuFours and share many similar concerns with education speakers.  Ideas are oversimplified for audiences and made to seem easy.  We are always searching for silver bullets and wanting quick fixes to our problems.  And last but not least, it is rare for education professional development to use quality instructional techniques in these type sessions.  In these tight budgetary times, I hope systems spend less on outside speakers and consultants.  Thanks to Scott for starting to question these people "on the circuit".

More thoughts on Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough

Some more random thoughts on Whatever it Takes.  I was thinking of writing a multiple post sort of "book report" on this book with different themes but that is really not necessary.  Some highlights of the book though are the following.

Tough does a great job providing some background on James Heckman, a Nobel prize winning Chicago economist.  Heckman's work (some complicated stuff which I won't really try to pretend to know more about) says that a "skills gap" happens with children from impoverished backgrounds at a very young age.  Children who receive quality early child care either from home or pre-school show gains from that experience fare later in life.  

This work leads to Geoffrey Canada's idea of the conveyor belt.  Canada is interested in far more than schools.  He wants to do away with generational poverty in Harlem.  So he created Baby College, which is a weekly class for expecting parents in the neighborhood.  He also tries to start school for his students at the age of three, thus starting the "conveyor belt" to college at a very young age.  I absolutely am thrilled with this approach for several reasons.  Canada is definitely a no excuses kind of man and leader yet he acknowledges through his work that to have a better change at making a huge difference in children's lives you have to start at an incredibly early age.  I also like that he does not just put it all of this work on the backs of teachers but instead enlists the support of social workers, child development experts, etc.  This is a very powerful notion that I see in my own system in many different ways but not in a unified "conveyor belt" kind of system, probably because of different jurisdictions in a close geographic area.

The story of the middle school, the first school Canada and company created, is quite a story and in the end,  heartbreaking to say the least.  Part of what I liked about the book is the unvarnished nature to the story telling, especially about the middle school.  Long story short, the first principal was fired because she was not tough enough on discipline and focused enough on test scores.  A new principal was brought in and made some vast improvements with student discipline but test scores did not soar immediately and there was still quite a bit of struggle with the first group of students, at the end of the book, they were 8th graders.  Looking at the years of struggles they had with many of the 8th graders and lagging test scores, Canada and company decided to not continue their education by creating a 9th grade class, despite earlier promises to the contrary.  This was hard to stomach, and Tough is unrelenting in his description of the anger and sadness the students and parents felt.  Tough also does a great job describing how Canada's unrelenting focus on test scores was in part stoked by a board of investment bankers who were interested in bottom line type results.  In Canada's defense, he was forthcoming about what he did in closing out the education of the 8th graders that year, and it appeared to be one of those tough decisions all around.  It does take me back to my concern about many of these high standard charter schools: what do you do with tough kids?  Just wait for them to quit or close down the school because you don't want to deal with them anymore?  

When the Harlem Children's Zone is bandied about (deservedly so) as a potential policy model by Obama we should look at the good (Heckman, conveyor belt, etc) and the not so good (letting the tough kids go through "attrition").  A great book though, and I am an even bigger fan of early childhood education than I was before.  I want a three year old program at my school now!