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.