Monday, May 26, 2014

The People In Your Neighborhood

 Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood? 

Some of you will recognize the line from a song that Bob McGrath often sang on Sesame Street. It’s been kicking around in my head this weekend as I reflect on the conclusion to my work with the educators in Fontana USD. I had the pleasure of working with the group for thirty-six days over the last year and appreciate all of the learning that took place. The ELA design team members (3-4 teachers from each grade level) were very thoughtful and worked incredibly hard during our time together. I was touched by their support and generosity on our last day and was tickled when the grade four team showed up in these shirts:

The local leaders included two teachers-on-assignment and a district person and I can’t thank Jackie, Jeanette, and Tammy enough for their amazing support on all of the days I was in the district. These types of long-term contracts also mean a lot of travel and hotel nights that brought some familiar faces into my life on each trip. Let me introduce some of them to you:

Shawn and Miss Robin – these two work for the Budget Car Rental outlet in the Ontario airport. Shawn always had my paperwork ready when I arrived which expedited the process. When you arrive late at night, every minute saved seems like a gift. Miss Robin generally was the person who took the car back in and was very efficient and ensured I got to the shuttle bus before it left. She always had a quick story and a smile. On my last visit she let me know she was working her last shift, as she needed a job that took her away from all of the outdoor heat.

Michelle, Vivianna, and Arturo - these three work at the front desk of the Hilton Garden Inn in Fontana. The two ladies always seemed to be at the desk when I arrived (usually a Sunday night) and always greeted me with a smile and warm welcome. They assisted me whenever I needed copying, mailing, or scanning to be done. Michelle told me about being one of seven daughters and we shared a laugh about what that must have been like for her Dad. Vivianna actually apologized for missing one of my arrivals. Her reason? She took her son to Disneyland for his birthday and added an extra day to the trip. Arturo always was at the desk when I departed and he never failed to wish me a great day and express how he looked forward to my next visit.

Diana and Michelle 2 – these two were always my dinner servers. I think I went through the hotel menu three times and they always let me know what was good that night (or what to avoid). I also was able to just order off the menu and able to score the best screen to watch hockey (a rare treat when I’m travelling in the US). They shared stories about their work and how much they enjoyed the interactions. It was evident from my vantage point that they really meant it.

Dave – this man sat outside the entrance to a shopping mall that I often ran by jingling his coffee cup looking for spare change. Every time I ran by he had encouraging words or a question to ask. I planned my last run to go by his spot at the regular time and was disappointed to not have the chance to say goodbye.

Lucy and Ingemar – this husband and wife team own and operate the restaurant that was just across the street from the board office and that became my regular lunch hangout. My first few visits were spent sampling various items on the menu before Ingemar suggested I try the carne asada tacos. Three small tacos and rice were the perfect midday pick-me-up and I was hooked for every subsequent visit. I would hardly have set a foot in the door when Ingemar would already start preparing my lunch and Lucy had my drink (pina) and bill ready. My last lunch there was a nice moment as we all shook hands and said our goodbyes and shared mutual appreciation.

Travel (flights and hotels) has become the least enjoyable part of this work. While I realize how fortunate I am to have this role, it really is about the connections I make with people I’m working with and the people who help to make the necessary evil of travel all the more manageable. And by the way, all of these people that I’ve met along the journeys – their future forms are sitting in your classrooms today. It’s why relationships matter in schools today and in the next steps our students take in their lives.

Say, who are the people in your neighborhood?

The people that you meet each day.

Monday, May 19, 2014

“We’re here to watch the game, not to have fun.”

        Last Saturday I had the chance to go to Wrigley Field for the first time and watch a Cubs game with three friends. It was an afternoon game and they decided I needed the full experience so we were going to make a day of it including taking the train and the Red Line subway. We arrived early and they took me all around the neighborhood to soak up the atmosphere. I bought a Cubs hat and we made sure we took group photos by signs indicating it was the 100th anniversary of the ballpark. We arrived to our seats about ten minutes before game time and were pretty animated about the game and the prospects of the home team against the first place Brewers. The day was not a cold as predicted and I was settling in for what I anticipated would be an awesome experience. All around us people seemed to be soaking up the experience in a similar fashion and there was a positive vibe around the stadium - in all places except the two seats in front of us. An older man and woman were there and were not talking to each other, let alone anyone else. Finally, just prior to the opening pitch, the woman turned around and uttered the words that appear as the title of this post. I was a little surprised and asked her if it was possible to do both. I received no reply from either of them. Various thoughts raced through my head as their words and actions seemed incongruent with the majority of the fans around us – fans that appeared interested in the game AND in having fun.

  The first connected thought for me was a recollection of a similar phrase that a workshop participant had shared with me the previous week when I was stressing the need for higher levels of student engagement in our schools as a way to increase results. “My job is to teach them content, not to entertain them. No one at college is going to care if they are bored” is how this teacher summed up what we ought to be focusing on. This despite the notion that a lack of student motivation and engagement is commonly mentioned as the reason for student difficulties, and as the reason for the failure of improvement efforts. Chris Weber and I make this point in our upcoming book, RTI Roadmap,

“Students are motivated and engaged when they believe
that standards are relevant, when they have choice, when
they have relationships with teachers, when they have
opportunities to collaborate with peers, when teachers
model effective social and academic behaviors, and when
schools nurture a growth mindset.”

We can have a significant impact on student motivation if we accept responsibility for engaging students. We need to get away from measuring success simply by what we do as educators and more towards what they receive as students and learners. I knew my challenge at the ballpark was similar. There had to be a way to engage the folks in front of us and build a positive connection.
  I watched both the game and the two people for the first couple of innings and noticed that they seemed to know a lot of the people working at the ballpark as well as some of the other fans in our section. I knew he would have a lot of stories to tell and at an appropriate moment, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to share his favorite Wrigley moment. He gave me a look that I initially interpreted as annoyance but was merely him running through his memory bank. He told me he was likely one of the few people there who had been to the park the last time the Cubs were in the World Series. “Granted”, he said, “I was only 18 months old and in a stroller, but I was here!” He had lots to share over the next while and I enjoyed his anecdotes. His favorite player was not one of the big starts that have dotted the rosters over the years but a player who hung around and signed autographs. He recalled when they were just regular people who had other jobs when they weren’t on the field. His friend now also began sharing stories about her trips to the park. They weren’t married but she gave her night game tickets to his wife because she didn’t feel safe coming to the games alone at night anymore. My friends were also participating in the conversation and equally captured by the identification of favorite moments and players. The game seemed to fly by and we were all celebrating the Cubs win (a rarity this season) and the other three went down to field level to connect with some other acquaintances. I hung around for a few second longer and thanked my 70-year old historian for sharing his memories. He said it was great for him as well because his short-term memory was gone (“I can’t remember the first inning by the end of the game”) and it was nice to recall some highlights.
  The connections for me in these two situations are that we can’t opt out based on the initial response. At the park we could have been grumpy right back at the two folks in front of us and everything would have spiraled down from there. I certainly would not have had nearly the same awesome experience. In the classroom, we can’t take our students’ lack of engagement as their final position either. We’ve got to find the ways to connect them and leverage that into a positive learning experience. In both cases, we need to act not react.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Collaboration - Helping Smart People Get Smarter

A lot of my work involves facilitating groups as they develop curricular units of study, assessments, and RTI processes. I am often reminded of how rarely schools and districts structure time for educators to get together and do this type of planning unless it is for this type of professional development activity. As a result many are missing out on one of the most powerful strategies they could be utilizing. The true power of a school team and its’ very success is realized when we hold every individual accountable for their expertise. Every person on a staff has a piece of the answer; every person is a part of the whole.
I have come to appreciate how difficult the process of working together truly is. It gets magnified when the people assigned to a team don’t work together in their daily lives but have volunteered to be part of a district team creating curricular units of study. I’ve recognized a pattern that emerges almost without fail when these groups begin their quality work. Oftentimes we begin with a two-day session where highly qualified educators come together to do some planning. The groups always start out being very congenial and engaging in positive support. It’s evident that this is the awkward, surface nicety that we tend to display as the feeling out process is in full swing. All ideas are embraced as good and productive and there is little, if any, dissent. I’ve recognized this as a warning sign. The first day tends to conclude with more of the same congeniality but it appears to be a little more forced.
Day two begins with a new energy and more congeniality until the mid-point of the morning. The room tends to get quieter and the conversations tend to become a bit more stilted and forced. There is a palpable tension in the room and the silent thought bubbles in many heads speak of frustration and concern that the others at the table “just don’t get it”. Tense moments manifest as frequent movement around the room, more requests for me to arbitrate challenges, and lots of doubt whether this work will move forward. It’s in this moment that facilitators need to push the groups together and help them/let them work through the challenges. Giving voice to the hard edges of the conversation moves the group from congeniality to collegiality, and from that the brilliance flows. It truly is a beautiful thing to behold as the teams really gel and take off from that moment. They move from looking for brick walls (the reason we can’t do something) to building bridges (to success for all students).