Sunday, January 24, 2010

Social Entrepreneurship in an Elementary School in India

I read Thomas Friedman's motivating column today and then found that one of my colleagues, Darah Bonham, was blogging about entrepreneurship in schools and calling on readers to inspire entrepreneurship in schools.

It got me thinking about our work with expeditionary learning. Implementation of expeditionary learning takes a long time, five to seven years is what most experts say. We are in year one. Yet, we are slowly but surely starting to find that one of the things that expeditionary learning will help us design is units of study that help students make real world connections. The work and slow because it is uphill. Not necessarily with the staff but any work to make things more authentic in a public school is an uphill slog (see NCLB). I have found that continual inspiration for me and others is crucial to help us keep that momentum uphill.

Then I found this wonderful video on TED.

One could argue after viewing that the Riverside School is an expeditionary learning school without calling themselves that. They have a simple motto: I Can and as a result they have created a group of young social entrepreneurs in their school and country. We always find reasons to not do things, bad budgets, stubborn people, but we need to focus more on the spirit of "I can".

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Loving the Honesty

I am currently reading Kim Marshall's new book, Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation: How to Work Smart, Build Collaboration, and Close the Achievement Gap. I love it.

In the book he lays out some cornerstones to what he feels make an effective instructional leader.
  • Principals must conduct brief "mini-observations" followed up with conversations regularly with all staff
  • Principals must monitor and support teams of teachers developing strong unit plans
  • Principals must monitor and support the use of more frequent, formative assessments
  • Principals must be efficient and effective communicators of school vision and beliefs and must manage their time powerfully
Kim has been putting these thoughts together for a long time and you can get a look at his articles on his website. Some of my favorite articles center on what he calls HSPS (hyperactive superficial principal syndrome) and he details that further in the book. This book is a great gut check type book for a principal and I found myself very lacking in all areas after reading. Instead of overwhelming me though, it motivated and inspired me. Why?

Because he is so damn honest. In the opening chapter of the book, Kim recounts his fifteen years of experience at an elementary school in Boston. He tells the story focused on the many mistakes he made and the various battles he lost. He tells those stories to show how his current views became a reality.

In the principal business, we often don't like to talk about what is not working at our schools. We don't ever want any negative "press" about our schools so we often just talk about what is working. We rarely troubleshoot in my experience and rarely are we ever close to being as honest as Kim is as he recounts all of the different stories of his principalship. The honesty is authentic and motivating because I make dozens of mistakes a day and rarely do I share them or talk about them. From his mistakes, he has developed a very powerful vision of what makes an effective principal. That is how we learn, right?

Monday, January 18, 2010

My new (old) obsession: time

Education Sector's paper Teachers at Work is incredibly enlightening. It focuses on the ridiculously small amounts of time teachers have to plan and collaborate and focuses on a small group of charter schools (Generation Schools) that are creating new structures that give students more learning time and teachers more collaboration time while using the same resources.

According to the paper, American teachers have the least amount of planning time (time away from students) of any industrialized country in the world. We need to change this but I would guess that the reason this is not currently part of the Race to the Top policy focus is that we are not trusted to use extra time wisely.

The teaching needs to be more professional. If it is not a focus of the current Race to the Top, then we need to create more examples of schools that do creative things with teacher time and student time. Teaching is an incredibly hard grind and with all of the things we are asking teachers to do i.e. close the achievement gap and teach 21st century skills, we need to give them more time.

If we can create more school examples that are successful like the very early pilot of Generation schools, then it might become a policy initiative that cannot be ignored (I have decided to be hopeful today).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Worried about Teacher Merit Pay

I am worried about all of this talk about merit pay. Kim Marshall's essay last month in edweek made some great points but I think one of the most interesting ones is that it will undermine team work in a school.

I have been in education for seventeen years and at least in the schools I have worked in during that time, team work has come a long way. It has been a long slog of change to get stubborn educators (definitely including me) to be more collaborative in our professional learning work. Could merit pay turn that back? The jury is obviously still out on that one but hopefully they take those things into consideration when developing these new policies.

The other thing that I worry about that Kim does not mention is just that it might be too damn hard for principals to enact. I share the supervision with my assistant principal of about seventy five people. The demands of the principalship are huge and now we will ask these already incredibly taxed people to spend countless more hours thoughtfully linking student test data to raises for teachers. I will need a lot of help with this one.

My other worry is that in the end, whatever version gets enacted, still has little to no effect on what happens in the classroom, but we have to spend even more time on it to justfify monetary raises.

What does have a strong effect on classroom learning (my belief at least): a positive professional culture in a school. Will merit pay help to develop that?

Insightful Quote from An Ethic of Excellence has me thinking

Every teacher at Mary Carr Greer received a copy of Ron Berger's An Ethic of Excellence this year. Ron taught for twenty five years in a small elementary school and now works for Expeditionary Learning as a school designer. The book is a very personal and passionate read on one teacher's authentic journey in creating work of meaning and value with kids. Here is the quote:

"Imagine if students and schools were judged instead on the quality of student work, thinking, and character. Imagine an expectation that an adult should be able to enter a school and expect that any child in that school older than seven or eight would be ready to greet him politely, give an articulate tour of a well-maintained courteous environment, and present his portfolio of academic accomplishments clearly and insightfully, and that the student's portfolio would contain original, high quality work and document appropriate skill levels. If schools assumed they were going to be assessed by the quality of student behavior and work evident in the hallways and classrooms, rather than on test scores, the enormous energy directed toward improving student work, understanding, and behavior. Instead of working to build clever test takers, schools would feel compelled to spend time in building thoughtful students and good citizens."

That quote comes very close to summing up what I want to happen at Mary Carr Greer. I find one of the arts of my current state of leadership is skillfully navigating my way around and inbetween federal, state, and local policy that has little to no impact on student learning but that I must comply to. I worry that with Race to the Top and the other Obama-Duncan initiatives, we will spend even more time focusing on test scores and tests, especially with the potential of merit pay.

How do you create a school where all the children have a full understanding behind all of the activities that they do and an understanding of their own achievement through thoughtful portolio development? A school where children feel a strong sense of belonging and trust? That the adults feel the same sense of belonging and trust.

It takes years, I am figuring that out now, but I do think it is possible. Especially if I am able to keep figuring my way through all the things that policy makers develop that they think will help kids.

Some New Thoughts for the New Year

Now that I have graded my school related resolutions from last year, I have been giving some thought to this year and I keep focusing on one thing- feedback.

Right before winter break, we offered the entire teaching staff at Greer to offer up their thoughts in the form of a narrative survey. The survey was of the old school variety: a sheet of paper with eight questions on it and I locked them in a faculty meeting until it was done. We used very specific questions to gauge people's feelings toward our new initiatives like Responsive Classroom, Expeditionary Learning, reading grouping, faculty committees, and then asked people to also write about how communication could be improved. We did not use any numerical rating systems, just qualitative feedback. It was a very powerful experience for me as a leader for a couple of reasons: the quality of the feedback was very high, people really took the survey seriously, and the feedback although quite varied gave us some very concrete and actionable next steps as leaders.

I compiled the feedback over winter break and we shared it with the entire staff. Every planning conversation we have had the past three weeks goes back to the survey. The survey feedback inspired me to try to communicate better and be better at developing and communicating a vision for our school.

It also has gotten me thinking about feedback. How do we create a more feedback rich environment at Greer? How do I improve in giving feedback to people that I work with?

In all honesty, I am woefully unskilled at giving feedback as a school administrator. My goal is to improve that this year. Part of my work toward that goal is to read two books, Drive by Daniel Pink and Rethinking Teacher Evaluation and Supervision by Kim Marshall. Both books get at real and authentic ways to help adults grow and learn in any setting. As I read these books and reflect more, I will try to find ways to make this goal more specific than the incredibly vague "give better feedback".

Another thought I have for this year, not really a goal or resolution, but instead more of a reflective thought is how much time and energy we spend in a school and even more so in a school system on things that have no or little effect on improving the quality of instruction and learning in individual classrooms and for individual students. As I reflect on this, I will try to point out these activities in as diplomatic a way possible, but also try to find ways to eliminate these systems, procedures, behaviors in myself and my own school.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Update on Last Year's New Year's Resolutions

I think on New Year's Day you are supposed to look forward, not backward, but who really knows or cares.  A year ago, I felt the need to post some professional goals for New Year's Resolutions .
I will describe them briefly here with a grade, self inflicted, about my progress in accomplishing these goals.  One note, I think goals are different than resolutions, but I have resolved to not worry about the little things this year.

1.  Finish the dissertation.  Grade- incomplete- but I have made significant progress for the first time in some years now.  I have solid drafts of Chapters 1 and 2 and aim to defend a proposal in February.

2.  Get the children's garden and hiking trail started at Greer- Grade C+- We have eight garden plots for twenty five classes, not enough, but have started growing things.  We have not done much with the trail.

3.  Sing more outside of music class-  Grade B.  We now have school wide morning meetings where we all sing something as a school.  It is very powerful.  In every classroom morning meeting, singing sometime occurs, and at our teacher retreat last summer, during the post work time we had a singing competition.  I hope that all digital copies of this contest have been lost or eliminated.

4.  This goal was kind of vague about using technology more in school and in my professional life.  Grade ?  because I am not even really sure I knew what I was writing about.

These were obviously not my only goals or even the most important ones.  If I can remember back to last year, I think I was trying to challenge myself in areas that were not typically areas of focus for myself.

I will try to post this year's goals in a couple of days.