Thursday, July 26, 2012

Preaching and Teaching (Both About Reaching)

I always enjoy visiting with my younger brother Jeff. He is a United Church Minister and we have wonderful conversations about the connections between his work as a preacher and mine as a teacher. Once we get passed the obvious difference, it’s amazing how similar our work is.
Today’s conversation was driven by a couple of questions I was mulling over during my run, which I sprung on him over breakfast (as an aside, older brothers always have to keep younger brothers off guard with conversation topics). I wanted to know what constituted a successful Sunday service for him and what he hoped to accomplish in a year in the life of a parishioner. I was hoping to relate that to a successful lesson and a successful school year. Our conversation produced some interesting connections for me.
Reverend Jeff’s notion of a quality Sunday service is contingent on two factors – how he feels at the conclusion and the feedback he receives. While he intends to “bring it” every Sunday he also recognizes his own capacity and knows that on the occasional Sunday his reserves are a little low and then he must do the best he can in that moment. I know that my intent as a teacher was always to inspire and create learning connections for my students. I try to do the same in my current role as a speaker and consultant but some days I need to rely more on my experience and learned skills. Those days do leave me feeling like I didn’t do my best but did the best I could.
I loved his response to what he sees as growth in a year for anyone in his parish. He wasn’t able to quantify it nor did he want to. “My push is to create the conditions where growth can take place, and to recognize that everyone is at a different place on their very personal journey”, is how he phrased his view of his role. As I think about schools today, I wonder if we might be able to embrace a similar view. Can we create the conditions where learning and engagement on a personal learning journey drive what schools are focused on rather than the rigid view that every fourteen year old must do grade nine Math and every other grade nine course? Can we connect purpose and passion with an eye towards future possibilities?
As always, our time to connect as brothers and colleagues concluded too quickly. I look forward to our next time in the same room together. In the meantime I’ll generate some more questions to explore. Feel free to share any you might want examined.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Learning From Failyour

“I’ve never made a mistake in my life”, he said quite proudly.
“Then how do you know how good you could be?” came the reply.

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately. Not just my own occasional mistakes, but instead in the broader sense and how we approach failure in our schools today. The above scenario played out at an event I was presenting at and gave me pause to reflect on why we often seem more interested to explore success than failure. A recent keynote by Mary Cullinane (Executive VP for Corporate Affairs and Social Responsibility at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) highlighted this for me when she expressed a reluctance to attend one more “best practices” conference. Instead, she wants to attend an “oops” conference where people share their failures and the learning that happened as a result. I think that would be a fabulous event!
Our schools and educators appear to be trending more towards the safe and cautious approach while lamenting the lack of engagement by students and the lack of teaching enjoyment by educators. Less risk taking and more covering of “important ground” has taken away the joy for both ends of the teaching-learning equation. Engaging in assessment practices that are more punitive than formative only exacerbates the problem. My visits to kindergarten classes are always a joy and I love the responses I get when I ask them what they want to be later in life. The options are endless and none are outside the realm of possibility to their young minds. The same question to a graduating class yields more puzzled looks and a reluctance to venture many options outside of a perceived strength. What has happened during the school years to limit possibilities and avoid taking the risk associated with pursuing something unknown?
Perhaps the solution lies in having our students learn to embrace failure as a learning experience by demonstrating our own frailties and highlighting the growth we experienced. Cullinane also asked why our school walls are often filled with excellent examples of products but rarely show process. I know it would be a challenge to display incomplete work or assignments that indicated improvements needed but is there a method teachers could utilize that would allow for failure to simply be redefined as a step along the way to quality outcomes? Our struggling learners become stigmatized by the notion of failure and our most able learners don’t venture into the realm of failure and instead practice those skills they already know (and often receive “bonus marks” for) thereby limiting their own potential growth.
          Whatever process we follow or steps we take, it ought to be with an eye towards nurturing and protecting our students’ capacity to dream about the infinite possibilities that exist for them. Every student is a success story waiting to be told. Some of the pages of their respective stories may speak to the struggles faced along the journey and the people who reminded them that failure was just part of the process. As Vince Lombardi said, "Failure is not getting knocked down, it's not getting up again."   

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

See A Penny

        See a penny, pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck.  So goes the old adage which has served as great advice for many over the years.  There have been articles in other formats that have highlighted the significant amounts of money folks have found while out enjoying the great outdoors.  Runners, in particular, seem to have numerous accounts of fortunes large and small they have uncovered while out for their daily run.  I have also experienced the joy of finding treasure this way on my daily treks.  
        Recently I was thinking about why these discoveries create such excitement.  I have a job I truly enjoy which generates a good wage.  Clearly the odd dollar found on the road isn’t going to lead to early retirement or put my grandkids through university.  Yet, there is that feeling each time I find money.  If these discoveries could generate this in me, I began to wonder what it did for others that came across this money in the streets.  
        This provided the opportunity I needed to create a whole new view of this money, that carries me through many of my runs today.  Rather than stopping to pick up the money I spot, I use the discovery as the start of another story.  One day I might imagine a young child coming across the coins on a hot summer day and enjoying an ice cream cone with her grandpa.  The next day it might be someone who finds the dollar and buys a winning lottery ticket and then donates money to a local charity.  Perhaps it will be one of the many homeless people I see who purchases a warm bowl of chili on a cold night.  I have created many scenarios and, depending on the length of my run, a myriad of possibilities.  It has afforded me much more than the accumulated wealth ever could have purchased.  On those days where I might be reluctant to head out the door, the minute I start thinking about the potential adventures waiting to be created, I can’t be held back.  
        I’ve also added a bit of a twist lately where I’ll pick up the money and then drop it in a different location.  Some times it will be a place where I know lots of kids will be like a school or park and other times it will be a high traffic area.  The danger in this is that you must ensure no one is following close by.  I had one polite fellow runner who picked up his pace to catch me and return the dollar I had dropped.  There are days when I have created such an engaging story that I want to stop at the sight of the coins and watch my drama unfold.  Of course, this would defeat the intent and instead I leave the spot with a smile on my face.  
        As for the old adage, I’ve modified it to see a penny, leave it there and think of all the joy you’ll share.

Monday, July 2, 2012

“The Time is Always Right to do the Right Thing.”

        I visited a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King recently and found myself transfixed on the quote shown above. As I looked at the statue and then back to the quote, I am not ashamed to admit I came to tears. In examining why I had that reaction (beyond being in awe of such a great human being), two things, one personal and one professional, emerged for me.

        On the personal side I was thinking of my fabulous daughter-in-law (the latter part of that title bugs me, she is my third daughter) who is African American and the mother of the two greatest daughters, and my granddaughters (bias intended), anywhere. I’ve heard stories from her about some of the negative experiences she has endured and admire her strength to just grow from those. For my son, the story is quite simple. He fell in love and nothing else mattered. Still, I worry for my granddaughters as I read stories, track Twitter feeds, and catch news items where race has been the central excuse for negative behavior. I wonder if there will come a time where they will simply be judged “for the content of their character and not the color of their skin”.  And I weep some more.

  On the professional side I continue to be disturbed by overwhelming statistics like these from the Census Bureau and the Department of Education:

In 2005, the on-time graduation rate for black males was 48 percent nationally; for white males it was 74 percent.
Nearly half of the nation’s African American students, but only 11 percent of white students, attend high schools in which graduation is not the norm.
On average, African American and Hispanic twelfth-grade students read at approximately the same level as white eighth graders.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that 88 percent of African American eighth graders read below grade level, compared to 62 percent of white eighth graders.
More than 60 percent of black students attend schools where more than 50 percent of the school population is identified as living in poverty, compared to 18 percent of white students.
In the forty-nine states studied, the school districts with the highest minority enrollments receive an average of $877 less per student than school districts with the lowest number of minorities enrolled.
In high schools where at least 75 percent of the students are low-income, there are three times as many uncertified or out-of-field teachers teaching both English and science than in schools with wealthier populations.

        I’ve been working in schools where these statistics are the norm and drive the expectations for (lack of) success. Dr. James Norwood put together this infographic ( that shows the devastating social and financial impacts of dropping out. The passivity and resignation that occurs when a black student is identified as struggling is mind-boggling. Are we harder on white students who struggle and do we try to push them to “get it”. Can any educator take solace in a graduation rate that suggests one in two students won’t be successful? Is our perception of low achievement for black students the cause or the byproduct? Or, as Rutgers-Newark professor Kent D. Harber suggests in this study, are we giving inaccurate feedback that does not provide black students the same intellectual growth and foster achievement?  Have we institutionalized the very thing Dr. King was trying to eradicate? And I weep some more.

  In the midst of my despair, I find some comfort. Some other data emerges on the positive side of the ledger:

Among blacks ages 25 and older, 82% have at least a high school diploma (as of July 2007) versus 14% in 1950.
Among blacks ages 25 and older, 19% have a bachelor's degree or higher (as of July 2007) versus 2% in 1950.
95% of black children ages 5 and 6 are enrolled in school (versus 69% in 1954)

        And then I get a chance to talk to Carlos who is a young African American man and my seat-mate for the first leg of my flight home. He is a man of many talents and interests, polished and well spoken, and willing to share his perceptions on my concerns. He let me know about the struggles his folks went through in order to create a better situation for their children. Carlos talked about two challenges – the institutionalization of failure for black students (as illustrated above) and the lack of positive role models or mentors. He went on to describe the various ways he is involved to set a positive example by volunteering his time to work with black youth who come from poverty or lack of success to let them know what is possible. He felt this was a critical component that was lacking in the structures and systems that African American kids were exposed to. He insightfully suggested they needed more than rappers and athletes to identify with as their only career options. I begin to smile. Perhaps Carlos and his generation, which includes my third daughter Sabrina, are what Dr. King was alluding to. Strong role models that will guide the next generation to take pride in the content of their character and their color so that others may be able to do the same.