Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sometimes Choirs Need Practice Too...

My final presentation dates of the year were excellent learning opportunities for me as I spent one day with the Guidance Counselors, Special Education teachers, Student Success teachers, Social Workers, and CYC workers. We were looking at creating successful pathways with an emphasis on relationship building and connecting this to the work of schools. My point was that relationship building IS the work of schools and the group was largely in agreement. We talked about who's doing what, how they are collecting information on students, what information they are collecting, and what they are doing with the information.

During a break, someone politely asked why I was preaching to the choir. I replied, "Because some of you have stopped singing." The person explained some of the struggle in getting buy-in from classroom teachers who seemed to want to be dismissive of any student who stepped outside the expected requirements for all students. These teachers were quick to send students out of class, penalize their tardy performance, and expect the specialists to “fix” them.  My point is that the collective commitment of a staff has to be built by the staff. When the choir stops singing, the silence is deafening. Collegial influence backed up by evidence of progress on the part of the student will carry more weight than any inspiration I might provide.

After I tweeted out the original comment, a colleague, Diane Goodman (@dianegoodman701) sent out another key reminder when she said, “and sometimes choirs sing out of sync with the director - creating noise, not music‬.” Another key component of collective commitment is to have the leader engaged, ensuring that the team is all using the same songbook and that the desired outcome is to make great music together.

Sometimes, choirs need practice too.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Dealing With the Yeah, Buts (One at a Time)

I’ve been speaking and writing a lot lately about content versus intent. I believe we are at a period in education where we know more about teaching and learning than ever before. I am always inspired by what colleagues share and am learning so much from what they write. I really think we have the knowledge base (the content) firmly in place or, at the very least, readily available. I think our next step is to determine our intent. Do we really want to engage in the practices and procedures, really want to implement policies that will lead to success for all students? The common and preferred response is yes, but lurking just beneath that are the “yeah-buts”. You all know these and they are progress stoppers. They conclude the great dialogue as they come just at the end of highly productive conversation. We’ve all agreed to commit to our next first step and then it appears. Yeah, but…

In some recent working sessions, the focus of the RTI conversations was around providing sufficient time for Tier 3 interventions. It was easy to agree that all students need to be proficient in the foundational skills of literacy, numeracy, and self-regulatory behavior. In fact, high school colleagues are often frustrated at the huge gaps that are evident in their students who are reading significantly below grade level or can’t do basic math. An end product of those gaps is negative behavior, often borne out of frustration. Let’s be clear – this is not an easily resolved issue. We aren’t able to create time and there are some constraining factors to consider. However, it is doable as I’m working in a number of schools that have made it happen. Conversations have led right to final piece of the puzzle needing to be slotted in – the time question – and the yeah, but emerges something like this. “Yeah, I agree the time is really important and the students need those skills, but I’m not giving up my course time. ___________________________ (fill in the blank with your course) is just as important as those other ones.”

This conversation is really not about the adults. It’s really not about valuing one course over another. It is about students and their learning needs. In some recent writing Chris Weber and I sum it up this way:

We believe it’s educational malpractice to NOT insist upon providing Tier 3 interventions in reading, numeracy, and behavior in place of important social studies, science, and elective opportunities WHEN significant deficits exist. The potential outcomes are clear:

  • Students will not finish high school
  • Or they will not fully participate in the comprehensive high school experience
  • Or they will not graduate ready for college or a skilled career
  • And they will not lead a productive life
…if they do not possess foundational literacy, numeracy, and behavior skills.

It’s time to slay the “yeah, buts” one at a time. They are impeding the progress of educators and significantly impacting the life chances of students. Let’s use them as starting points to the conversation not end points.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

What is the Value-Added in School Today?

The last month has seen extensive travel (over 25,000 km flown) and wonderful opportunities to connect with colleagues from all over Canada and the United States. I’ve been focusing some of my work around the concept of “value-added” in schools today.

Let me start by saying that I believe the value-added component for me, as a school student, was knowledge. School was the only place you could get it and the teacher was the font of information. Every day I went to school to get the next chunk of knowledge. That was the life of a student BG – Before Google. Today, knowledge is the easy part as technology has made it accessible in a variety of formats and instantly. It is important that we continue to stress to students that it is critically important to ascertain the veracity of the knowledge being dispensed. Just because it is on the Internet does not necessarily make it so.

I think the value-added today centers on three components:
  • Critical thinking,    
  • Meaningful engagement,  
  • and Authentic collaboration. 

I’ll elaborate on each one below but first let me suggest that it’s long past the time where school should look the same as it did generations ago with no evidence-based justification for doing so. We have 21st century students being instructed by 20th century adults using 19th century pedagogy and tools on an 18th century school calendar. We can and must do better.

Critical thinking requires a shift in both teaching and learning. It compels teachers to move beyond the right/wrong dichotomy that has dominated education, to exploring the uniqueness of an alternative response that may drive more powerful connections to the material. It compels students to be risk-takers in their learning journey and have the confidence in their thinking to move beyond a presumed answer. A recent example occurred with a group of teachers who were sharing an activity where two lists were generated by the class. The first list identified methods of transportation (car, bus, jet, bike, walking) and the second list identified locations (school, friends, park, market, movie). The objective was to match a transportation method with a location. One student identified jet and market. Rather than taking a typical action and marking the answer wrong, the teacher explored the option with the child suggesting that a jet needed space to land. The child beamed when explaining that his uncle was a jet pilot and he knew that a jet needed a certain amount of space to land. He further explained that in measuring the parking area by the market he had room to spare. Activating the child’s knowledge identified a much deeper thought process than grading his response as wrong could ever have produced.

Engagement speaks to a need to connect the learning with the world our students live in or experience. School should look different in each area I visit and be contextualized to the local community. School with high First Nations populations should embrace that culture as should schools where technology is a big part of the region. Students need deeper connection between the work and the world. We have to stop with the inane math question that reads like this:

Tommy brings 73 kumquats to school
to share with his twelve classmates. How
many kumquats does each friend receive?

The students actually never get to the math! Some have no idea what a kumquat is (but it’s a delightful word that they just repeat all day and use out of context), while others wonder if he loaded them in his backpack and got on the bus. What if the driver slammed on the brakes? Would there be kumquat juice all over the place? Why does he think his friends want kumquats? What class has twelve kids? There must be more practical, real world engagements that hook the kids in their learning and deepen the importance of the application of knowledge.

Collaboration speaks to a much deeper and richer process than has been utilized in schools, and with which our students are all too familiar. It has to extend beyond assigning a task to a group of four and only checking their work upon completion of that work. In that scenario often the most able student does not want their grade affected. After sizing up the capacity of the rest of the members that student may determine they are the smartest and will simply do the bulk of the work while putting all of the names on it. Authentic collaboration is also a process that has deep learning for all. Skills involved in engaging peers in meaningful dialogue, recognizing strengths of others, and achieving a common goal will put our students in good stead.

That’s my recent thinking on today’s value-added. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the three I’ve listed and would especially appreciate any additions or extensions you might have. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

I Lost A Friend...

As I write this sitting in my hotel room in Halifax I am leaving myself open to the emotions that have been washing over me since first hearing of the news of the passing of my dear friend Wayne Hulley. There is not a single word, like friend, that can truly capture all that he meant, and yet so many words are jumbling around in my head as I think of all he meant. I won't purport to know the impact he had on others but I'll hazard a guess it was as profound and meaningful as his presence in my life was (and will continue to be).

It is somewhat apt that I am crafting this in a Halifax hotel room as it was in this glorious city that I (alongside Charlie Coleman) took my first step into the world of conference presentations and working with colleagues around twenty years ago. I only took that first step because Wayne believed in me and believed I had a message to share. My hesitation was evident as I chatted with him about what to expect and about what a ridiculous notion I had about thinking my words would be interesting to anyone. He reminded me to be myself, to share only what I truly believed and lived, to build relationships, and to have fun. With Wayne it was always important to have fun.

The tears I am shedding are caused in equal measure by the loss I am feeling and the laughter that emanates when I think of the stories he shared. I think I know every Wayne story by heart and yet he always produced the gales of laughter in his telling (and retelling) of each detail. He was one of this nation's most gifted storytellers. I will truly miss that aspect.

We last talked in person a little more than a year ago and we both knew that his time was much more measured that either of us hoped for or wanted to believe. As he headed for the door he asked me to walk with him. When we got to a less public space we spoke openly and he shared some words that will remain private but will be forever treasured. We embraced for just a little longer than was our custom and wished each other the best.

I am relieved that his struggles are over and his body is no longer wracked with the pain that the scourge known as cancer, brought. I am saddened for his family knowing how important they were to him. I am blessed to have known him and have him enter my life when I needed him the most. His faith was important to him and I know the denizens of Heaven will be regaled with the finest stories and the finest storyteller I had the privilege to know. Rest well my friend.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Marathons and Classrooms

I just completed my 47th marathon in Chicago this past Sunday and that distance give you lots of time to think. My analysis of the race this year focused on the similarities between the field of 45,000 runners, and the students that come to school and populate our classrooms.

As I watched the runners all around me, I noticed a variety of approaches to running styles. Some had longer stride length while others seemed to have foot strikes at twice the pace of mine. There were runners carrying elbows high and others who seemed to have their arms by their sides. One woman ran with a video camera mounted to her hat and had such a backward lean that I could only imagine the pain that would cause. Runners were guided by their pace wrist bands or watches or their internal clocks. I saw two runners with carbon fiber legs. Some runners had many layers of clothing on while at least two men were running shirtless. I ran past costumed runners and runners supporting their favorite charities. I saw three runners whose visual impairment meant they had guides running the course with them offering key information at the appropriate times.

As I think about the students coming to our schools, I know there are a variety of approaches to learning styles. Some are more proficient in math than language arts. Some are beyond others in the technology aspects but may lag in another academic area. Learners might be guided by their internal organizational skills or may need agendas created for them. Some may have physical restrictions that they have overcome personally while others may need additional human support. Students’ learning levels may be readily visible to the naked eye, or may be buried under deep layers. All students will require feedback at appropriate times along the way.

The spectator support along the way made every runner feel like a champion. Signs and cheers amused and elevated participants (as an aside my favorite sign read “Worst Parade Ever”) as they pushed past each kilometer marker successfully. In our schools, descriptive feedback could make every student feel like an academic champion. Acknowledging the skills, providing supports, and believing that every learner can will get them past each grade marker successfully.

Some runners were able to maintain a consistent pace throughout the course, while others had varied pace depending on aspects of the course, their energy level at the moment, or stopping to take on fuel. The fastest runner in the field completed the race more than six hours ahead of the last person to cross the finish line and I’m sure each had a different perception of the course. Some students are able to maintain a consistent pace throughout their school career and stay on grade level. Others are accelerated and exceed expectations ahead of their peers while others struggle to gain proficiency and may need more time or a different strategy to master the hard spots. Some of our students get tired and may also need more fuel.  

The end goal for anyone who enters a marathon is to cross the finish line 42.2 kilometers later. The end goal for any student entering school in Kindergarten is to cross the stage 13 years later.  Just as anyone can enter a marathon regardless of ability level, our schools take all students regardless of their background. Some runners needed to slow down their pace or needed additional support (friends running alongside or extra food sources) to complete their race. Students may also need to adjust their pace or require educators learning alongside. The bottom line is this – regardless of the actual marathon event or the marathon that is school - all have the capacity to reach the end goal and cross with arms raised feeling like the champion they truly are.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Fact Checker for Social Media?

I have to confess – I am now using social media outlets as my first source of information when I’m needing updates or just breaking news. I’ve consumed it readily and rapidly without exercising much discretion. Recently, however, I’ve come to realize that perhaps we need a fact checker as I believe the levels of manipulation (yes, I’ve intentionally used that strong and powerful word) have reached new highs (or is that lows?) in an effort to play on emotions and get folks polarized while being denied the whole truth. Now, you might argue that people ought to be more discerning and use multiple sources, but for many the harried pace of life means the “news” comes in the easiest, most convenient format. And what’s easier than a 140-character tweet? Couple that with the emotion of the moment, and the veracity of the comment becomes less important than the comment itself. Using data that might fit for an extreme situation, sharing half-truths, passing on rumors, and name distortion were all in full view recently. None of which serve to elevate the debate and allow the focus to be on genuine concerns. That’s the real loss in the world of quick opinions and choosing camps.

In the absence of a fact checking option, perhaps it might be wise to revisit what I used to do before the explosion of social media. I had a file labeled “letters never sent”. At times, my emotions and upset at a current event or individual would get the best of me and I would write a torrent stream largely driven by emotion and often biased by my own views of the world. The process was remarkably therapeutic! I also knew at the end of the crafting of my marvelous tome, it was best to sleep on it. More often than not, the passing hours allowed for a clarity that was previously missing, to calm my emotions, lift the fog off my thinking, and allow for a more productive solution to appear. Over time the file did grow, and after a time lag, many of the letters were shredded. I preserved some relationships that would have been lost, or at least severely compromised, that were important for my work and me.

I realize that the world is demanding much more instant solutions and instant viewpoints. While that may feed the “social media monster”, I have serious reservations about the long-term ramifications to our productive thinking and creative problem solving. Emotion should not come at the price of passion.