Friday, June 24, 2011

Beyond Discipline or Beyond Common Sense?

     I realize the title of this blog might be a little inflammatory and that's not the intent. I really enjoyed the first session of the #kohnbc book chat on Twitter last night (thanks @birklearns) and am looking forward to our conversations around the next chapters on Alfie Kohn's book "Beyond Discipline". The timing was excellent as I had just returned from a quick dash to Chicago where I had the chance to co-present with my good friend Charlie Coleman. I learn from him each time and enjoy the stories he shares from his classroom experiences. It provided a good counterpoint to some of what Kohn writes about and was part of the reason we chose to reference his work in our book.

     Some of the comments shared last night resonated with me and mixed in with the Chicago event prompted this post.
"Kohn is so good when reading but in practice sometimes hard to make practical."
Dave Meister (@phsprincipal) shared that thought and it reminded me that our classrooms are not test laboratories free of all of the frailties of society. They instead consist of a wide range of kids with a wide range of talents and abilities (and yes they ALL possess both) displayed under a wide range of circumstances. Some of these factors may require us to move into those areas Kohn sees as negative and labels as controlling.

"Behavior in school must be contextualized when taught."
Tom Schimmer (@tomschimmer) shared this gem and it provided the clarity that expectations vary from place to place in schools. You can't accurately describe expected behavior at the assembly which will be held in the gymnasium from your classroom seat. "Be Safe" looks markedly different in a kindergarten classroom than it does in a grade 12 classroom.
"Too often we hold students to higher standards than we hold ourselves."
Darcy Mullin (@darcymullin) gave the third prompter to me with his comment about expectations that often times seem to only be externally employed. If we don't model what we teach then we are teaching what we model. The rule that states "No food or drink in class" doesn't have fine print excluding adults from adherence but it seems to be employed in a tiered way.

     So how does this tie back to Charlie and Chicago? He shared a story that I won't do justice to in print but hope to provide enough details to connect the dots. Charlie spoke about an elementary class of his where Mikey was the student who misbehaved the most. This was widely known as Mikey had been the most challenging student in each of his previous years and his reputation was set. As the teacher Charlie was determined to make a change in that reputation and pass along a better Mikey than the one he inherited. Here's where it rubs Kohn the wrong way. He used a merit ticket as a method to try and change the behavior. Given how far to the negative the behavior had gone, it required some overt action to pull it back to acceptable and then beyond to expected. Charlie really honed in on Mikey and rewarded him more frequently than others. At the end of each week a draw was held for some other trinket or positive outcome. Mikey never won these draws and Charlie could not understand why as Mikey's odds were much higher than the other students based on the number of tickets he received. Finally on a day when Mikey was away, Charlie looked in his desk and saw, that despite the overall chaos, there was a neat pile of tickets sitting in one corner. He asked the students who sat near Mikey if they knew this was occurring and heard that Mikey proudly showed off his stack with the comment about how often Mr. Coleman had caught him being good. I cannot find a lot of problem with the approach or the outcome for the student. Would I expect to continue to have to do this? No. The approach would be to move away from the overt to more covert methods but the desired changes required something different. Here's one other outcome that I appreciated hearing from Charlie. He would start each day with 30 tickets in his pocket. If he still had lots left at the end of the day he knew that he had missed out on noticing a lot of wonderful things that happened in his class and he committed to not letting that happen often. Think about your classes. Could you really have 30 students for five hours a day and not see a myriad of great things happening?

     I appreciate the views that Alfie Kohn has brought to the education world and I believe in a lot of the approach. I also know after 28 years that there are many ways to move kids forward and I'm not prepared to toss out any that might be the first spark to the fire that burns within all of our students.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This too will pass...

     Lately it seems that there is a lot of dialogue about what needs to change in our education system and what might be the best way to affect these changes. It strikes me that many of these conversations have been going on in similar format throughout my 28 year career and don't progress much beyond the conversation.
     A recent study ( released by Mussio and Associates looked at the impact of birth month. Their conclusion - December babies are less likely to attain benchmark standards at grades 4 and 7 on time, and are less likely to graduate on time. I don't think I'm the only educator who already knew this. In our province the graduation rate (defined as six year completion) continues to hover around 80 percent for all students and around 50 percent for Aboriginal students. This also is not news. We know that our most disadvantaged learners struggle with a two month summer break and come back for the start of the next school year having lost much of the gain attained in the previous school year. Yet we still run a school system on the agrarian calendar and talk about how this works for the majority. We know about the impact of poverty and of children living in disadvantaged homes and still resist making substantive change to the system that will address these issues.
     Let me insert a disclaimer here before those pockets of brilliance that exist across all systems get riled up and want to highlight their outstanding work. These should be the norm and not the exception to a healthy education system. When one of the schools in our district had an incoming class of kindergarten students who screened significantly below standards for kindergarten readiness, we didn't shrug our shoulders and say "let's hope they catch up". Instead the teacher, with support from district staff, embarked on direct instruction with the intent to close the gap. By the end of the school year, the students were kindergarten ready. They could not be abandoned in grade 1 and so the process must continue.
     The point is that we have a wealth of information at our disposal and we are not using it to create the systemic change that is required for today's learners and tomorrow's community members. We cannot continue to address the needs of the future with the unmodified recipe of the past. I cringe when I hear educators say they are tired of the assessment conversation or hearing about personalized learning. My response to that is simple - you are having the wrong conversation! Instead of dismissing a topic, shift the dialogue to student success. Make it about what we collectively need to do in altering the inputs to improve the outcomes.
     Dr. Randy Pausch spoke of brick walls as indicators of how much we wanted something. If we see them as excuses to stop, we may not have really wanted to achieve the goal. I wonder if he also meant the brick walls of our schools being resistant to the winds of change.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What Wayne Said....

     I love this time of the school year and likely not for the reason that might seem obvious - that it's almost over! I chuckle to myself when non-educator friends talk about the year winding down as they have no idea about how the emotions of staff, students, and parents wind upwards. No, I like this time of year for the reflection that occurs. Sometimes it is at graduation and other times at retirements of beloved colleagues. But it's always a positive experience from my perspective.

     It's also the time I invariably find my self thinking about those who have inspired me over the years and the mentors I have been fortunate to have. Lately, I find myself thinking a lot about my good friend Wayne Hulley. I can't escape recalling a phrase or two that he has used that provides me solace during a challenging moment or simply brings a smile to my face when I'm struggling to find my "happy place". I've created my top ten "Hulleyisms" that continue to inspire me to be the kind of educator he describes and models.
  1. What happens to you is very often beyond your control but your response to it is what makes the difference.
  2. Parents are sending the best kids they have.
  3. Different isn't always better but better is always different.
  4. Hope is the belief that all students can learn and that school staffs are capable of turning that belief into a reality. 
  5. In school improvement, no adults in the school are unimportant. 
  6. To change outcomes for students, schools need leaders who care enough and can express that caring to other people.
  7. Our time is now if we choose to make it so.
  8. School reform is as much an act of the heart as it is an act of the head.
  9. Effective schools are willing to undertake not just restructuring but also reculturing to reach their goals. 
     And my newest favorite (simply because Wayne agreed to write the foreword to the book Coleman, Weber, and I wrote) that demonstrates the ease with which he can synthesize material and bring it to a place that educators can relate to:
  1. School improvement will never be easy because it forces schools and teachers to change their behaviours.  However, committed staff, with constructive proven strategies can make a positive difference. 
     I know that all of us can think of inspirational figures throughout our careers and most of us have been blessed with positive role models. Wayne has been all of that and more and I feel very fortunate to have spent time with him over the last fifteen years. If ever there was an educator for whom the Order of Canada was designed, Wayne Hulley would be that educator. Thanks for the encouragement, support, and guidance over the years my friend.