Saturday, December 31, 2011

Banjo and the Beach (A Metaphor for 2012)

     I feel very fortunate to live where I do with the pacific ocean one hundred meters outside my front door. It's great to be able to walk along the beach and take in all that nature has to offer. Lately the high tides have mad it virtually impossible to walk along the beach forcing Banjo and I to take the greenway for our strolls. Banjo is our six month old Springer Spaniel and never was there a more aptly named breed. She has boundless energy (the photo below is a rare shot of calmness infrequently seen) and loves the beach walk replete with chasing waves and seagulls.

     The walk this morning looked like it was going to be relegated to the greenway once again but Banjo was itching to get down to the beach. The other problem with the high tides of late has been the deposit of numerous logs making the beach walk more of a challenge. Banjo was not to be deterred today and about a third of the way along the path she yanked hard on the leash to draw my attention to the right and in the direction of the beach. It looked like there was enough sand for us to go down and continue the walk. The other aspect of the beach walks I enjoy is picking up pieces of beach glass. I'm not really sure what I'll do with the collection (and that is a challenge to ponder at a later time) but it's fun to find odd shapes or colors.

     As we continued our walk we got to a spot where the logs and the high water suggested a return to the greenway but Banjo had other ideas. As mentioned earlier she has boundless energy and simply bounded over the logs picking a route that allowed for the walk to continue. I, with considerably less energy and enthusiasm for the route, picked my way over the logs clearly questioning where my leader was taking me. It was interesting that when I looked at the logs as a whole, it seemed impossible. Tackling each log as an individual challenge reduced it to a more manageable task. After some scrambling we got to a clear stretch and I was happy to have made it through the difficult part. I found some great pieces of glass and, at the extreme end of the walk, made the best find.

     The walks always provide great thinking time and I began to wonder how often I may have missed out on something because I ended the journey a little too early or stop pushing when it got a little too hard. Further thinking led me to the point where this seemed almost too simplistic - that is I didn't want to reduce this to the naive belief that simply hanging in there would always guarantee the best piece of glass would be waiting for me at the end. Sometimes the struggle is just that and there are no tangible rewards at the end. What I did realize is that often it is just about the journey and that journey can be a fabulous reward in itself. Especially when you are taking it with a great companion.

     Best wishes to all who read and follow this blog for a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2012!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Greet Them With the Gift of You!

     I read with great interest a recent blog post by Josh Stumpenhorst (@stumpteacher) that spoke about the concerns for some of our students as they headed off for the Christmas break. He listed some of the challenges these students might face ( and reminded educators to "remember when those students start acting out there might be a reason behind it. They might be afraid of leaving the safe, calm, and loving environment that is school."  My experience tells me this is equally a challenge for students when they return to school. For all of the same reasons listed, some of our students return from a world that may function in direct opposition to many of our expectations in the classroom and they may have spent many days in a much more chaotic realm. Their return to school tends to be a bit uneven and fraught with frustration for the teacher who felt significant progress had been made prior to the break.

     How best then, to make their return as positive as possible? The first few days should be devoted to reviewing routines and expectations. Not with an eye towards issuing consequences but to ensuring that all the gains realized before the break remains the focus and the foundation for future growth for all students. Teachers might want to think about planning a field trip or a classroom activity that involves a lot of visual or hands-on stimulation and student interaction during the first week after the break. This would engage all of the students in a positive and pro-social event that will allow a quick return to the old, familiar, and desirable routinesThe more negative the experience the student might have had, the more effort required on the part of the educator to reconnect that student to some of the positive attributes. Many of you represent the sole positive role model your students might have in their lives, Never underestimate the difference you make. As I was watching my favorite holiday classic ("It's a Wonderful Life"), I imagined George Bailey as a teacher. The significant and profound impact that educators have for all of their students becomes even more so for those students that teeter on the edge. Not to suggest to any readers of this post to be either macabre or egotistical, but take a moment and reflect on what might be if you were not a significant adult for so many of your charges.  

     The Christmas holiday and New Year's celebrations produce a lot of emotion and do create many positive memories. I'm not suggesting that we avoid interacting with those students for whom this is a blessed time but merely suggesting that we recognize that some of our students come from the other extreme. Rather than getting frustrated or disappointed that there appears to be a loss of all that was gained pre-break, take a moment to realize what was achieved and recognize the path to achieving that might be a little easier to tread the second time around. The best gift we can ever give our students is the gift of ourselves. Perhaps we should all wear a bow on our first day back. 

     Merry Christmas and best wishes for a healthy and happy 2012.

Musical Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree- 24 Inches Tall

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stepping in it Again (Rewards Redux)

     The discussions around rewards and motivation have produced numerous perspectives, blogs, books, and guest columns over the years I've been in education. It's a topic that can be polarizing for those who remain rigid in their views or enlightening for those who value the insights shared by colleagues. I'd like to think I fall in the latter category as I know my views on this topic continue to evolve. I'm not the same teacher I was 29 years ago; I've learned from the brilliant educators who have gone before me, beside me, and after me. Having said that, it's also important for me to state that I'm not prepared to firmly plant both feet in the camp of those who would advocate for an absolute absence of any extrinsic motivators. And here's why: I firmly believe that extrinsic motivation is a pre-cursor to intrinsic motivation for some of our students. Two examples, one quite recent and one from a lifetime ago, illustrate why I have held on to this belief. 

     A recent visit to the DSBN Academy (see my recent post on this school at and conversations with the students resulted in a student quite honestly stating to me and his peers that he hates school. I was not surprised given his experiences up to that point - a lack of success and a greater lack of engagement with future prospects looking quite dim. He is now in a new environment where the focus is on what he is capable of doing going forward with a group of adults committed to helping him achieve his potential. As I debriefed with the staff afterwards, we could all see that this youngster would need some overt efforts and some extrinsic motivators before he starts to get the sense of experiencing success and recognizing his talents. This example reinforced for me two key points; first, not all kids start with the same skill set or tool box and second, and even more troubling to me, is that we sometimes magnify the differences through ineffective practice or a deterministic view that not all will be successful.

     The second example is a personal one. I grew up a child of poverty and abuse who followed five older siblings to school. School success was not a priority for any of them and the expectations for the sixth Hierck child were not high. It was not likely, nor fair to my teachers, that I was going to be intrinsically motivated or do the right things for the right reasons. In fact I probably was motivated but my motivation was towards those things that would be viewed as anti-social, and that I was well versed in. I can recall teachers who I simply wore down and pushed to the point where they had little energy left to salvage anything for me. It's not that I was unaware of the right things or didn't see what success created for my peers. I just didn't see how that was a possibility for me nor did I have any examples at home that would have made it seem attainable. The details of the changes that occurred for me are beyond the space a blog permits but one of the key pieces for me came in the form of extrinsic motivators. When my family moved across the country and I arrived in a new school, opportunities appeared that allowed for a significant change to happen. One of the first forms of extrinsic motivation came in the form of math contests that spurred a confidence level in me that allowed me to view things differently. I will remain forever grateful to Mr. Huberman for identifying a skill in me and setting up a forum that provided acknowledgement for that skill. I had not had much experience with that feeling and built on that experience. It was one of numerous external pieces that shaped a new direction for me. As is the case with many of our students, I didn't need the external forever but it was the kick-start that allowed for change to occur. This view is summarized in our recently released book:

“Over time, the goal is to move to more intrinsic and less extrinsic 
reinforcement, when students make good decisions for the sake 
of satisfaction it instills instead of the rewards it brings."

     While I know that my practice has been enriched and improved over time, I also know that some things I did early in my career have stood the test of time. One of these that also fits my notion of external motivators is an activity I called post cards from school. Each student in my Science class was given a 4 x 6 index card and asked to draw a picture on the unlined side of any science related theme. I used this as an early indicator of what appealed to them in the course. I collected the cards and on the right half of the lined side I wrote the parent/guardian name and home address. These then became post cards that I sent home at some point during the school year. Post cards always contain only positive messages and that was the challenge for me. I needed some authentic, descriptive feedback that I could share about each student. This could have been a challenge for my struggling learners but instead focussed my attention on looking for the good news. On some levels it was a bigger challenge to create a message for my most able learners that went beyond some of the standard comments they have received throughout their school careers (a pleasure to have in class, a commendable student, outstanding achievement, excellent work) and also carried some meaning. The impact of this extrinsic reward was palpable throughout the school year as both students and parents appreciated the recognition.

     Moving forward, I remain open to my thinking continuing to evolve around this topic. I do want to avoid the creation of a dependency on reward before the exhibition of expected/accepted behaviors. I also want to remain committed to helping those students who aren't connected to their intrinsic motivators make those connections. Even if it takes a little external magic to make it so.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Behavior and Habits (Another Book Excerpt)

            The last few weeks seem to have generated lots of tweets and blog posts on creating positive learning environments and achieving desired behavioral outcomes with our students. Many of the posts also speak to the need to steer clear of rewards, tokens, or awards as a means to achieving these desired outcomes. In our new book (Pyramid of Behavior Interventions: Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment, Hierck, Coleman, and Weber offer the following thoughts:
            Behavior is learned.  Repeated behavior is habit-forming.  If we want to form positive habits, we need to learn, practice and repeat positive behavior.  However, we do not want to leave the impression that we are so strongly behaviorist in our approach that we think kids will salivate at the sound of a bell like Pavlov’s dog.  B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists make some valid points, but this clinical thinking needs to be put into the context of human inter-relationships.  Alfie Kohn (1996) is also right when he says “behaviors occur in a context that teachers have helped to establish; therefore, teachers have to examine and consider modifying that context” (p.16).  Kohn goes on to argue that schools should be about community, not compliance.
            Covey (1989) helps us balance these two approaches and puts it into perspective when he talks about “proactivity”.  To be proactive is to be in control of our lives.  As Covey points out, “Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions” (p.71).  It is not simply a stimulus-response formula.  Between stimulus and response is choice.  Our freedom to choose, and our ability to make choices and decisions on how we will respond to the stimulus, determines our behavior.  Basically we behave in certain ways to either get things or to avoid things – physical, psychological, or emotional.  But we have control over the behavior we choose. To be sure, behavior is learned.  Thankfully, we can teach ourselves and we can teach others how to make positive choices regarding behavior. In other words, we must balance the behavioralism of B. F. Skinner with the humanism of Carl Rogers.
            It is our role as parents and educators to help kids learn how to make good choices.  We cannot assume they have these skills when they come to us, rather we need to teach these skills directly.  We have to believe that what we do with kids does make a difference.  We must believe that we have an influence on the way these kids change, grow and develop while they are in our care. At the heart of education is a positive, engaging learning environment where kids both know what is expected of them and are internally motivated to do it.
            While students are learning to become intrinsically motivated, they need nurturing and support.  Before students can internalize appropriate behaviours they need to learn the required skill set.  They need to learn and practice the skill set in the specific context.  To change behavior we need to, as Kohn (1996) suggests, modify the context in which student behavior occurs. This is not about manipulating behavior through fear or punishment.  Rather, this is about creating positive, proactive systems and structures that are conducive to students learning to become self-motivated. Self-motivation is recognized as a critical self-regulatory strategy.
            This should happen in middle schools and high schools, not just elementary schools.  The skills taught and the language used to teach it should be age appropriate, but it must continue as kids grow and mature.  Whether we call it social responsibility, citizenship, or character education, we owe it to our kids to support them as they learn to become full and active participants in our society. These are behaviors that can be learned.
            When a student has trouble learning these behaviors, we cannot dismiss it as a personality problem or character flaw.  We must not use excuses such as “He comes from a bad home” or “She lives in a tough neighborhood” or “Well, you should see the parents”.  We need to believe that intrinsically every child has the potential to act in a positive, productive manner.  Some need more instruction and support than others to get to that state of behavior.  We must separate behavior from personality.
            It is also important not to personalize the problem behavior.  That is, we should not generalize a bad behavior choice as indication of a “bad kid”.  Similarly, we should not take the poor behavior choices by students personally.  As adults we should not get angry or take the student’s misbehavior as an indication of personal failure on our part.  In the heat of the moment, this is sometimes difficult to remember. It’s just behavior. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Teach Them How to Swim

            Much has been written and even more debated in schools and at professional development sessions about the need to prepare students for the “real world”. Those who advocate that this is the role of educators speak about the need to “keep it real” or “make it similar to what they will encounter when we are no longer there to support them”. Folks speak of the real world with a fervent disposition and a passion that belies the fact that many of us educators haven’t spent much time in that world. This dawned on me when my colleague Tom Schimmer (@tomschimmer) asked a seemingly innocent question: “How much time have you spent outside the ranks of education?” and by that he meant the extended period defined in years not just my summer times. I suspect my answer is similar to many of my colleagues – none.  I’ve been going to school every September for the past forty-five years. It really is the only world I know and can speak proficiently about.
            Others who believe we should mirror what is out there forget that we exist in a different world. As I have moved through various leadership roles, my vacation time has decreased but my last contract still called for six weeks. Many of my teaching colleagues can easily add another four weeks to that total (even discounting busy times and the extra work all educators perform, there are still two weeks at Christmas, one week at Spring Break, and as many as ten weeks in the summer) which does not match up with any of my friends plying their various professions in the real world. I know this can easily be defended by the volume and complexity of work that educators do during the school year but it’s a fairly unique situation.
            Those who cry foul about not matching with the outside world often use this as the rationale to argue against second chances or to argue for academic consequences for social misbehaviors (late assignments, truancy, cheating) as if to suggest that we must prepare students for the harsh realities by mimicking them. Yet my own practical experience (failing my driver’s license the first time) and checking into other professions (doctors, lawyers, airline pilots) indicates to me that the real world is full of second chances and remediation. When I failed my test I was provided with absolute clarity as to what I needed to improve. The natural consequences were that I had to take another lesson, wait longer to drive my car, and book another test. Upon completion I wasn’t told it was unfair to those who passed in one attempt. Nor was I given conditions on my license like no driving on weekends or bad weather. The professions listed above provide second chances. Not all of us are going to the Doctor that graduated top of their class. Some are going to the bottom achiever who may have made errors along the way. All of us can be satisfied with our medical care however because we know all who graduated have met the standard. Similarly some lawyers need more than one attempt to pass the Bar exam and some pilots spend more hours on the flight simulator. Once they have mastered the learning outcomes they are free to practice their craft.
            As for the notion of consequences and the suggestion that the world is all about sink or swim (and therefore our schools should also be sink or swim), I love the response Dr. Rick DuFour gave at a recent PLC conference during his keynote address. “To prepare our students for this notion of a sink or swim world, we ought to teach them how to swim.” We are blessed to have students grace our hallways for a significant portion of their lives. While I may be convinced that the real world is different from our educational world, I think it’s critical that we take the time we have with them and arm them with as many skills and strategies to face those challenges, that we provide an environment that allows for mistakes to be made and growth to occur, and that we take them from where they are and bring them to where they can be.
            During my schooling I learned how to diagram a sentence, find x, conjugate a French verb, perform a left hand lay-up and despite all of the emphasis behind each, I have not been asked to ever demonstrate any of these in the real world. I can see the skill development that might teach a student something that might be relevant moving forward. I also know it is rarely expected that both the task and the boss change every hour, and yet this is what our students face.
            The push to replicate the real world only seems to occur when the discussion is focused on what and why students need to change. I appreciate the fact that our world is significantly different and value the opportunity to work with students to help make that transition smooth. The real world will have them soon enough. Let’s have them enjoy the world they are in.