Saturday, October 8, 2016

Helping, and Learning from, Robbie : A Simple Conversation Opened My Eyes

After 10 years of teaching and coaching in the community in which I live, I had become accustomed to running into current and former students and families during every trip to the grocery or Walmart. My daughter, on the other hand, hated shopping with me because it always meant an extra 5-10-15 minutes of "listening to Dad talk to strangers." But, in the fall of 2011 I had a different experience at Walmart.

Over the summer, I left my teaching position for an assistant principalship at another high school. I was nearing the end of what I had hoped would be a quick in-and-out visit when I heard footsteps behind me. "Robbie," a student whom I had taught the year before, approached me. "Hey, Mr. G. I can't believe you left. Do you believe I'm doing well in school?"

"Of course I believe you're doing well. There was never a doubt in my mind." Of course, that last part wasn't entirely true. As a matter of fact, it might be considered a flat-out lie.

Robbie was an extremely challenging student. Extremely intelligent, he lacked motivation.  He was part of our freshman transition program for at-risk students, and in my 17 years of teaching, he was one of the most frustrating students I ever taught. While he passed my class, I considered it a "loss" because his grade was not indicative of his abilities. His mother, who I corresponded with weekly, shared my frustrations. He failed multiple classes.

So what made this interaction different than hundreds of others just like it?

After nine months it wasn't until that moment that I realized I had connected with Robbie. The connection--one which I had not even realized existed--had taken time and patience. Robbie had been a behavioral and academic challenge, and despite all the headaches he had caused, I failed to recongize his personal growth and my positive influences on him until then.

We cannot expect instanteous change. Struggles precede progress.

The honest, daily conversations with Robbie, the constant communication with his mother, the undying belief in his ability eventually reaped their rewards. Robbie, who had experienced failure in school for many years, challenged me; he forced me to improve.

As educators we relish the moments when students reach out to us and say, "Thanks," but we must also savour the daily challenges and struggles that we undertake daily to ensure each student's success and growth.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

6 Fundamentals to Facilitating Change

I’m a pretty straight-arrowed rule follower, and I’ve never considered myself a rabble-rouser. So several years ago, when I got called into the principal’s office, I suffered a mini-anxiety attack. With my heart palpitating and my spores gushing sweat, I feebly sunk myself into a chair opposite of the principal’s massive desk, seemingly hoping to hide behind it.

“Reed, you gave 15 INCOMPLETE grades. Incompletes are only to be used in extreme situations like when a student misses several classes because she was sick. Go back to counseling and fix this.”

With that--and no opportunity to defend myself--my shift to Standards-Based Grading grading had hit another roadblock. I had a great relationship with both the director of school counseling and the registrar, so I was pleased to see them together as I entered counseling department. Obviously, they knew why I was there, and they reassured me that it was no big deal. The registrar let me in on a little secret, another teacher had also given a significant number of incompletes, and from her perspective, the only problem with incompletes was that it required more work for her since she would have to manually enter the new grades. She continued, “We can’t accurately calculate GPAs when a student has an INC. Other than that there’s really no problem with incompletes except that it’s something different.”

With that I immediately understood: different isn’t always good. This is especially the case when it goes against a long-standing school policy.

After I explained to the registrar that students received incompletes because they had not completed a significant assignment or did not demonstrate the required mastery of a strand or unit, the registrar offered a temporary solution, “Reed, give them the F or whatever, and then come back with a grade change form and I’ll change the grade. It’ll end up being the same amount of work on this end.”

I appreciated her understanding and willingness to work with me. Of course, I had already explained to the students and their parents why I had given Incompletes and what needed to be done, so I went back to my office space and started making phone calls.

While this wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time, it offered an opportunity for me to reflect, “Standards-Based Grading has been good for my students and assigning Incompletes (in my classroom I called them ‘Not Yets’) on assignments had led to improved academic performance.  What could I have done differently? What did I need to do going forward? What had I done wrong?

As an educator, I sought to constantly tweak, change and improve, but clearly I had taken a few missteps in my journey towards Standards-Based Grading. Through reflection I identified six areas where I erred.

6 Fundamentals to Facilitating Change

  1. Change requires honest dialogue and courageous conversations. Internally, I had identified a problem and a solution but not wanting to rock the boat, I did not involve others when I should have.
  2. Educational change requires support from many people. By providing information to others, along with the rationale and supporting research, I could have increased support and avoided conflict.
  3. There’s nothing wrong with starting small and sharing. I had been flying solo on my Standards-Based Grading journey, but I could’ve expanded my efforts to include other teachers from my PLC or my team. Doing so would’ve ensured ongoing dialogue, increased validity and improved fidelity.
  4. Change efforts must be organized. Had I been more organized and done a better job of coordinating my efforts with others, I could have avoided cynicism and conflict. By creating a specific plan with the help of others, the change to Standards-Based Grading would have been more valid.
  5. Anticipate problems and emotional reactions, including your own. My principal rightfully felt like the carpet had been pulled from under him as I--unintentionally--broke school rules, and I also became very frustrated. I did not anticipate emotional attachments to educational policies, nor did I proactively plan for problems.
  6. Expect cynicism. To reduce the rampant cynicism among most school staffs about educational improvement, restructuring endeavors should be well organized and coordinated. A written and/or visual model of the change effort can be developed and posted, including timelines, activities, task force members, and their responsibilities

Educational policies should be synonymous with change. Ongoing restructuring and improving should be a valued norm. Such innovation must be appropriately managed to ensure positive results. Doing so will ensure that we meet the needs of our students.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Revamping and Reinvigorating High School

In a welcome change, Virginia is making plans to revamp high school education. The process got me thinking, What classes should be required and how can we truly make high school relevant for all students?

Digital Literacy: Through this course students will seek to understand literature and digital technology. Students will read and examine various types of autobiographies and biographies and “write” their own life stories using a variety of digital tools. Students will create their own narratives and design a digital project of their own. Through the course students will learn what it means to be a responsible digital citizen and digital storytelling and presentation. This course will broaden student understanding of literacy by requiring students to engage with literacy and technology. Students will develop comfort and control over modern technological tools and will create an online digital portfolio. This class would “replace” ninth grade English.  

Nutrition and Wellness/Human Biology: Students will examine the impact of nutrition on wellness by learning about diets, nutrients and the human body. Students will be introduced to the human species by studying human anatomy and physiology, physical fitness, genetics, and health. Since the purpose of school is to prepare students for life, shouldn’t we include a class on nutrition and child care? Most of us will never truly use Algebra II or World History I, but most of us will eat, cook, and raise our own children.  

Fit for Life: The goal of this course is for students to adopt a lifelong personal lifestyle that will achieve physical fitness. Students will identify and understand the various components of physical fitness including nutrition/diet, stress management, cardiovascular endurance, strength, and flexibility. I imagine this class could be completed outside of school as a blended class with occasional school-organized fitness opportunities in the community. I’d love for this class to be required for all 4 years.  

Driver’s Education  

American Studies (2 credits) Replacing an English and United States History class, this interdisciplinary course examines our nation and culture using literary, historical, visual, and social perspectives with an emphasis on our current world. Students will examine: What does it mean to be American? How have race, gender, socioeconomic class, etc. shaped America? What are key ideas associated with America? Students will engage with primary and secondary sources of all kinds dealing with history, literature, culture, law, society, etc. There will be an emphasis on creativity, analytical skills, reading, critical thinking and verbal articulations.

Citizenship Class (2 credits) This course offers students a chance to become a more engaged member of the community. Students will examine individual and state identities leading onto topics including democracy, justice, and the role of government. Students will examine an issue, undertake research into the issue and develop a plan of action. This community activity will link learning and life by connecting a meaningful community service project with academic learning and personal growth. Citizenship Studies enables learners to use and develop a range of skills such as communication, analyzing, advocacy, planning and collaboration.  

Geopolitics and Science (2 credits) Instead of progressing through Earth Science and World History textbooks, students will examine the world we live in through current events. Doing so provides instant relevancy. Students will take on the roles of historians, geologists, climatologists, theologians, etc.

Two Interdisciplinary or Project-Based, Thematic Math Classes If you look at the classes I’m recommending, I’m hoping you notice that my goal is to provide a purpose to each class so instructional units aren’t simply disconnected ideas. For example, World History should not be taught as it’s chronologically organized by textbooks, when a thematic approach is far superior. Far too many math classes are equally disconnected, lacking big ideas with no purpose. Much of what our students learn in math lacks context and purpose. Learn a new tool, practice, homework, quiz. Learn a new tool, practice, homework, quiz. Repeat 178 times. 

Before you jump down my throat, I know there are many math teachers are doing great things in their classes and others feel handcuffed by state standards and end of course tests. Currently in Virginia, Algebra, Geometry and Algebra Functions Data Analysis or Algebra II are required for high school graduation. A study by Michael Handel of Northeastern University revealed two important facts: less than a quarter of adults report using math any more complicated than basic fractions and percentages for their jobs. Equally important, the study discovered that some of the best blue-collar jobs require higher-level math; it’s not just the college-bound who need Algebra and above. Across the Commonwealth and the United States, end-of-course math test scores are the lowest and serve as roadblocks to graduation. The answer to these issues lies in how we approach math. Less math isn’t the answer, rather we must embed math instruction into other classes to ensure it’s more engaging and meaningful. Instead of stand-alone math classes, math should be incorporated into STEM and CTE (Career Technical Education) classes or students--and teachers--can create project-based math classes. By revamping how we teach math, students will have the opportunity to apply and think mathematically instead of simply memorizing rules.  

These reforms, which dramatically challenge the status quo, emphasize relevancy; interdisciplinary instruction; and fewer, but deeper, more meaningful standards.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

3 Challenges to Leading and How To Overcome Them

Before I made the jump to administration, I rarely led professional development. I'd like to think that I had a lot to offer my peers. So although opportunities to lead PD were scarce, why didn't I ever take
the lead?

Honestly, it comes down to one word: FEAR.

Fear of Criticism
As a leader, even if it's just temporary position, your shortcomings are often highlighted and your strengths are overlooked. Public criticism, or even worse, behind-the-back critiques can be the norm. As an administrator, criticism comes with the job, and I remember my first principal telling me, "Expect it. Take it. Get out ahead of it." It comes with the paycheck. Self-awareness is a must.

But for teachers, this burden is often too much. An excellent and innovative teacher, whom I've known for more than a decade, never lets fear hold her back. She pursued innovation and the opportunity to lead, but far too often cynical peers lambasted her for her efforts. We shared the same ideas and principles, but honestly, she was either stronger or more stubborn than I was because, as a teacher, I never had the courage to put myself out there.

While she was often a lone crusader, even when you work as part of a team, you face criticism. I worked closely with a voluntary group of about a dozen teachers who were responsible for the school improvement team and professional development. These highly dedicated, innovative and student-centered teachers faced a barrage of criticisms from their peers for their plan, leaving many to question their own efforts.

Fear of Failure
Faced with uncertainty of their efforts, these teachers feared that their efforts might fail. When all The team by no means failed and the professional development model and school improvement plan were great successes. 
eyes are on you, the pressure mounts and the fear of failure rises. For driven educators, failure is the worst thing in the world.

When we lead, failure is imminent. If we don't ever fail, are we actually leading? The best we can do is own up to our own mistakes, learn from them and make the necessary adjustments. 

Fear of Innovation and Responsibility
Many organizations, including schools, have deeply embedded cultures that fear change and innovation.  In such organizations, mistakes are seen as failures. All feedback is seen as criticism. Growth goals are minimized to ensure they are easily met. Sadly, I worked for ten years in one school and over that time I saw little innovation; the status quo always won out. If the leaders didn't seek change, why should I lead the charge?

Without the support of leaders, teachers will never feel comfortable expanding their comfort zones and growing. In a culture of learning, risk-taking and growth are encouraged. The expectation should be for teachers to explore and innovate with an understanding that mistakes will happen but only through the process will growth and excellence be met.

I'm proud to say that I've become more comfortable taking risks, leading the way and no longer am I crippled by fear. I'm not sure why this is the case? Perhaps, it was the change in schools? Perhaps it was becoming an administrator? Or maybe, it's just been my own personal growth and the support and encouragement of others. Honestly, I'm probably also selling old-self a little short. Regardless, I hope to foster a culture of risk-taking and innovation where nobody is fearful.

Related blogs 
Administrators Role in Encouraging Risk-Taking
Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone
Creating a Risk-Taking Classroom Environment

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

5 Barriers to Innovation

What is best for the student?

Dedicated educators are constantly asking themselves this question as we strive to create innovative learning experiences for our students. We need--our students need--new ideas and inventions that fly in the face of the status quo and transform our schools.

While our education systems has made great strides in recent memory, we need to do more. So why aren’t we making the necessary innovations?

5 Barriers to Innovation

Isolation Many teachers believe, “I’m doing fine. My students are doing fine,” they shut their classroom doors and go about their business. Even the most reflective teacher, who remains isolated, lacks the ability to share and learn from others.

For many years, I was an isolated teacher, one who was successful but whose growth was limited by my isolation. I was perfectly content to shut my classroom door and teach. In truth, it wasn’t until I became an administrator that my perspective widened as I began observing and communicating with peers.

Budgetary Constraints  Expansive collaboration--like shared collaborative planning time--requires time and money and many innovative ideas require increased funding.
For ten years, I was part of a high-functioning  freshman transition team. As part of our vision, we wanted to go to 1:1 technology. Our school administration was on board, we asked the higher ups for money, but alas no money was available. We wrote grant or two. Again a no go. We gave up. Back to traditional paper and pencil teaching.
Risk Intolerance: A child’s future is in the hands of his/her teachers. A failed standardized test can mean a student doesn’t graduate. Of course, many teachers are either formally or informally judged based on their students’ test scores. School communities, including the families they serve, are not risk tolerant.

After taking my class, students took a state-mandated standardized test; for many of my students this was their best chance to earn a required social studies credit. I’m proud to say that my students did extremely well on the test. But, knowing the “importance” of the test, I was always reluctant to take a risk, weighing the risks vs the consequences, far too often I stuck with the status quo.

Fads Filled with cynicism, many teachers see the next wave of innovation as a fad. I heard one teacher exclaim, “I’ve been doing this for so long. I’ve seen it all. Portfolios, technology, project-based learning. It’s all the same. It’ll come and it’ll go. Just like everything else.”

Innovative ideas, whether a fad or not, often complicate teachers’ work leading to disheveled implementation, dumbed-down instruction and ineffective instruction. Finding the appropriate balance between improvement and innovation

Control Who controls the decision-making in your school? In one system where I taught we were prohibited from straying from the state curriculum. Observing administrators opened up the state framework and tallied instructional time into three categories (black: directly related to the prescribed curriculum, white: outside of what should be taught, and gray: information that falls somewhere between black and white). Needless to say, “effective” teachers spent most instructional time in the black. Teachers were rewarded for PowerPoints that essentially copied and pasted from the state curriculum.

In writing this blog, I came across the stark realization that schools were not designed to innovate and are inherently risk avoidant. Innovation is risky, causing many people to run away from it and it’s almost become reflexive for many educators to say, “We’ve never done this before,” or “That won’t work.”

Too often we fall back on what is easy, what’s known or what’s comfortable.

We despiritedly ask, "Why bother?"

Innovation means working towards our ultimate goal of improving lives. Our mission as educators is to ensure each student reaches their potential, and we must constantly explore ways to ensure this happens. We must do what's best for our students. 

What are some barriers to innovation that you've experienced? Or better yet, that you've overcome?

Related Blogs
Creating a Risk-Taking Classroom 
Administrators Role in Encouraging Risk-Taking  

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Why Wait, Be More Dog

Our Compelled Tribe theme this week revolves around a presentation given by Jennifer Hogan and Craig Vroom at NASSP’s (National Association of Secondary School Principals) Ignite Conference: Be More Dog.

In the video a cat has a eureka moment; decides that his life is boring and takes on the role of a dog. In essence the cat stepped out of his comfort zone, did the unexpected, and was rewarded with a life of excitement by being more dog.

To dogs life is amazing
Carpe diem, grab the Frisbee
There are many things to explore and experience.

Like most of us, I’ve had a handful of Be More Dog moments where I’ve seized the moment, but most recently I took a new job in a new city. After two decades of living and working in Warrenton, Virginia a distant exburb of Washington, DC, I took an assistant principal position in Charlottesville, Virginia. While professionally the move was essentially a parallel move from one assistant principalship to another, I realized there were many new things to explore and experience both professionally and personally.

Like the life of a cat, my “previous” life was fine. I was comfortable--maybe too comfortable. But professionally I was ready for a new challenge. Personally, I was ready to hit the restart button.

My new position presented several unique opportunities. As Dr. Moran, my new superintendent, told me several times, “We do things differently here.” I left behind a very high-performing, but very traditional school, for one with more challenges but one that was always looking to push the envelope. Simply put, there’s a recognition in Albemarle County that the traditional way isn’t what’s best and risk-taking is encouraged. Of course, inherent to risk-taking are failures but by embracing this innovator’s mindset, Monticello High School is at the forefront of technology, non-traditional learning, maker spaces and so much more. This new professional chapter of my life, while being overwhelming at times, has been exciting.

Being recently divorced, the move meant being farther from my children and this weighed heavily in my “don’t move” thinking. But ultimately I saw the move as an opportunity to experience and explore. Honestly, I knew little of Charlottesville, other than it being about 2 hours away from my previous home. Friends spoke highly of it. A couple web searches revealed that for a small city, it played big. As John Wooden said, “It’s not how big you are, it’s how big you play,” and Charlottesville played big. Indeed, I’ve fallen in love with Charlottesville. 

Eight months in, I’m still learning, adjusting and improving. I’m glad I took the risk. The rewards have been incredible and I’m a better person because of it.

Why wait? Be more dog.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

10 Take-Away Statements From Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen

  1. 50% of student outcomes come from What a Teacher Does
  2. Learning is social. Half the class should be spent with social interaction, cooperative learning. 
  3. Students can only respond with emotions they know and have
  4. Students from lower socio-economic status are less likely to have positive interactions with their parents. In higher-income families the ratio of positive conversations to negative conversations was 6 to 1. The numbers shifted dramatically for middle-income families to 2:1 (positive to negative). For lower-income families, the ratio shifted to 1:2 (positive-to-negative). 3 to 1 is considered optimal for human growth. 
  5. Schools with low trust have a 1 in 7 chance of student growth in reading and math. Schools with strong climates of trust have a 1 in chance. 
  6. Building a strong working memory takes only 5-10 minutes of practice a day for 8-12 weeks. 
  7. Low SES students are more likely than their higher-SES peers to have auditory processing and language deficits. 
  8. There's no such thing as an unmotivated student; there are only students in unmotivated states, sitting in demotivating classrooms. 
  9. Teachers who score high in "life satisfaction," meaning they feel content with their personal and professional lives, are a whopping 43 percent more likely to produce significant achievement gains in the classroom than their less satisfied peers. 
  10. And as always: Students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. 

Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Power of Teamwork

“A school community is like a ship. Everyone must be prepared to take the helm.” (Roland Barth)

Too few people realize that a group can accomplish what an individual alone cannot. Sadly, teamwork and collaboration are not prevalent in many schools. Despite all the challenges educators face, often we isolate ourselves. As a young teacher, I truly believed that I would make a positive difference in every student’s life--that I would be THE difference-maker, but I erroneously, and perhaps arrogantly, thought I could do it alone.

Despite my best efforts--I was always one of the first to arrive and the last to leave--by working in isolation, I limited my ability to advance as a teacher and thus hurt my students. I was too proud to ask for help (side note: I remember struggling with my junior/senior psychology class, which was made up of 24 female students and 1 male all of whom were just a couple of years younger than me, and seeking the advice of my administrators only to be rebuffed with flippant comments...that didn’t help change my perspective).

We cannot close our classroom doors and just go about our business, either fighting the battle by ourselves or scared to admit that we need help.

In my 7th year, my school began a freshman transition program. At the heart of the program was the collaborative planning time, an unfortunate rarity in American education. Teaching the most challenging students in the school, I soon realized that I could accomplish more and be far more effective if I was willing to share ideas, ask for help and offer support. Teamwork.

Almost by luck, we each brought our own diverse styles to the team.
  • The pleaser: This teacher was all about his students’ emotional well-being. He didn’t see himself as a subject-matter teacher and would sacrifice instructional time to talk to students. He focused most of his energy on getting to know his students and their lives outside of the classroom. Of course, knowing this, his students often purposefully side-tracked him so teaching and learning became secondary, but his students also confided in him.
  • The professional: This teacher enjoyed teaching and saw each lesson plan as a personal challenge. He was a practitioner who applied data and research-proven strategies to teaching. While recognizing the need to build relationships with students, instruction sat in the front seat.
  • The pragmatist: This teacher was new to the profession and entered the teaching profession to make a difference but also to have time with her young children. She was the person who would just sit in our meetings, not say much, and just soak up the information.She was even-keeled, consistent and rational.
  • The regular: This teacher was straight-down the middle. He was old-school, loved his subject and had seen it all. While he loved his job, he rarely showed emotion (positive or negative) as he’d seen it all.

While we each had our own strengths and weaknesses, together we made an exceptional team (by the way I was the “professional”). While we each had our own strengths and weaknesses, like most teachers, we shared an overarching desire to ensure the success of our students. The experience of collaborating with these teachers, strengthened me as a teacher. I focused more energy on building relationships with every student. I became a better listener and asked questions that I didn’t have the answer to. I learned that when we isolate ourselves, we limit our success.

Over the next ten years, many teachers cycled through the freshman transition program. The success of our teaching--and ultimately, our students--hinged on our ability to lean on each other and share ideas.  Through teamwork and collaboration, we build meaningful connections, reducing our stress and improving student outcomes. Only once we establish an expectation of teamwork and connectedness, will each staff member view themselves as something larger and greater.

“Coming together is a beginning. 
Keeping together is progress. 
Working together is success.” 
~Henry Ford

I’d be remiss, if I didn’t give a shout-out to some of the high functioning, highly successful teams I’ve been part of including administration teams to our RTI team to the School Improvement team, and many of the teams I coached.