Friday, May 5, 2017

Fly Me to the Moon

“Providing activities that relate to students and capture their interests is a best practice. However, if we want such activities to produce genuine student growth, instructional design must focus on learning outcomes as opposed to the activity itself.”


To this day, one of my favorite all time songs is Fly Me to the Moon, preferably versions sung by Frank Sinatra. There exists a remote possibility of a connection between this preference and my 7th grade science fair project. When I was in 7th grade, the Apollo

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program had recently ended, but the idea of flying to the moon was still a pretty big deal. In fact, when Mr. E., our science teacher, announced the details of that year’s science fair, my buddy, Scott, immediately leaned over and said, “Zoul, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s do our project on whether man can live on the moon!” Thus, what was to become the coolest project in the history of our junior high school--if not the entirety of American public education since its inception--was born.

Over the next several weeks, my dad dutifully drove me over to Scott’s house, where we diligently toiled away for hours on our moon project. Not surprisingly, our project involved paper mache, glue, sawdust, spray paint, and plastic plants, buildings, and human figurines. It also included plastic domes and plastic tubing which connected the “Residential” dome to the “Community” dome to the “Workplace” dome. When finally finished, Scott and I beamed with pride and the smug knowledge that our science fair project would be feted as a masterpiece and we would walk away as first place winners at the annual science fair competition. As we marveled at our finished product, my friend reminded me that we were also supposed to do some research and write a paper determining whether man could actually live on the moon. We threw a few sentences down on paper and prepared for the big event, arguing about who would keep the first place ribbon at their house first.


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The night of the science fair was a pretty big deal. Back then, we all dressed up. I looked pretty spiffy in my maroon velvet blazer and big bow tie. In glancing around at the other projects, it was painfully obvious that ours was the best. Even our friends came by, proclaiming that we were sure to win since our final product was the coolest thing they had ever seen. Then, the big moment: Judges came by our table and asked us a few questions about our findings. For some odd reason, they seemed more focused on the science involved than they were on our actual moon model. One judge asked, “Well, boys, based on what you learned, will it be possible for man to live on the moon?” Scott and I looked at each other incredulously, aghast that a man this obtuse could possibly be serving as a science fair judge. We masked our disappointment in his intellect and, directing him to our model, said, “Well, of course, Sir. Can’t you see? This is where the people will live, this is where they will work, and they will shop and play in this dome over here,” pointing to the various features of our rather amazing model. The second judge was no more erudite than the first, and pressed us again about how these domes would actually operate to allow man to live there. Mildly exasperated, we again directed his attention to our masterpiece and patiently explained the various features we had created. The two judges looked at each other, thanked us, and quickly made their way to the next project. My buddy and I anxiously awaited the announcement of our first place finish and wondered if we were going to be called upon to give a speech once on stage to accept our award.


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Much to our surprise, we not only failed to win first place recognition, we also missed out on the second place, third place, and even honorable mention categories. Our pals were nearly as stunned as we were, with many of them rushing over to tell us we were robbed and that ours was clearly the best in the entire fair.

Although we honestly had no clue at the time why our jaw-dropping project merited zero recognition from the judges, I suspect anyone reading this today has already diagnosed the problem. Our “Science” project was a tad short on “science” even though it was a stunning art project. In fact, we learned nothing at all related to our proposed question about whether living on the moon was feasible. Although I can still recall with great clarity the work we put into the model of the moon, I recall no reading or research we did about the actual question itself. I suspect our “scientific” paper merely described our art project and included nary a word about any scientific considerations pertaining to living on the moon.

Although science fair projects have come a long way in terms of rigor and academic focus since my junior high days, I still worry at times if, in an ever-present quest to “innovate” in our classrooms, we are sacrificing “learning” in the process. Although I am a firm believer in engaging students through high-interest activities and projects and using flashy technology tools to enhance such work, I am perhaps even more adamant that these activities, projects, and technologies must relate to specific learning outcomes designed to grow our students’ knowledge and skills. Over the course of my career in education, I have seen the education pendulum swing from one extreme to another and back yet again, with the two extremes being some version of “traditional” learning and some version of “innovative” learning. Today we are in the most innovative educational environment I have witnessed in decades. My fear, however, is that if we do not remain steadfastly focused on learning outcomes and results, we may soon see the pendulum sway back once more, with a concomitant outcry of of folks demanding a “back to basics” approach to public education. As with almost all educational concerns, we cannot be forced into one or the other. We must continue to provide “innovative” learning experiences, complete with authentic projects and exciting learning activities, but we cannot lose sight of the “learning,” the knowledge and skills students must acquire in the process.
         
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Listening to Sinatra sing about flying to the moon, swinging on stars, and seeing what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars sounds almost as fun as my 7th grade science fair project. However,
gaining actual knowledge about life on the Moon or the science behind space missions to Mars and beyond is decidedly more useful--and can be every bit as fun! Ensuring that our students are engaged in fun, exciting activities while also ensuring they are learning in the process is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!




Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Flashy or Foundational?

“Teaching is not about us being brilliant; it is about students being brilliant.” 
Tom Newkirk

Recently, my good friend Tony Sinanis posted the following question via Facebook:

“Something I've been thinking about... Are we more focused on the pockets of "great things" happening (the flashy/trendy/sexy things) & possibly losing sight of the fact that certain foundational practices aren't solidified? If that's a reality, I think progress won't become a sustainable norm in our schools. Thoughts?”

This caught my eye at an ironic time as I had been pondering the very same thing. My own short answer? Yes we are. And, No it won’t. In fact, if we only focus on--as Tony calls them--the flashy/trendy/sexy things, and in mere pockets, no less, while subordinating in importance foundational practices, we are doomed, methinks, to a future in which the pesky, inevitable education pendulum swings all the way over to a “back to basics” focus.

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My second thought was to suggest that this is yet another example of an “and” rather than an “or,” meaning we need to continue to explore the flashy/trendy/sexy while also making sure we are attending to the foundational. In other words, we need both. Then, in another moment of serendipity, I came across a blog post by another respected friend, Dean Shareski, titled, aptly enough: “When the Answer is Both.”

Dean suggests that simply saying it’s “both” is a bit of a copout, the kind of thing we say to please everyone. It may be partially true but it can also be an unsatisfying answer and one that lacks direction. Instead, we should determine what we think should be the focus, then emphasize and lead with what matters most. Good advice, and worth considering when choosing between the Foundational or the Flashy in Tony’s scenario.

Although I currently serve in one of the most innovative (“flashy”) districts with which I am familiar, I still think we need to lead with and emphasize the foundational. If we lead with the foundational, we can get to the flashy. On the other hand, I worry that if we lead with flashy, we may never get to foundational and we will be forced, at some point, to retreat all the way back to basics, which is a direction in which I am loathe to journey.

What, then, are some of the “foundational” things we must lead with and aim for in order to ensure we we are poised to implement “flashy” ways of achieving our goals? Here are five possible foundational non-negotiables worth considering:

  • We must still focus on safe learning environments. Our first priority is student safety, including physical safety of course, but also social and emotional safety. If we fail to promote risk taking or fail to protect students from adverse consequences for initial failures, they will never feel safe with the flashy/trendy/sexy ideas we want to try in our classrooms. How are we ensuring that our kids will feel comfortable taking chances?
  • We must still focus on learning. Anytime we implement a flashy new tech gizmo, we must have a purposeful learning goal in mind. What will students know and be able to do as a
    result?
  • We must still focus on results. I know of nary an educator who entered the profession because they were passionate about standardized tests. I am no exception. Still, we must hold ourselves accountable for ensuring that our students are growing and learning. Are our students demonstrating growth?
  • We must still focus on professional collaboration. If we do not carve out time to share ideas and resources, observe each other teaching and leading, and look at student work together, we will never move from pockets of excellence to networks of excellence. Are we identifying bright spots that are currently working and replicating these?
  • Finally, we must focus on eliminating old practices when we agree to adopt new ones that are better. Anthony McConnell, an outstanding principal in our district, suggests that one of the easiest ways to innovate is to simply cease and desist with non-innovative practices. As but one example, many “innovative” schools still rely on “traditional” grading and reporting practices. No matter how flashy/trendy/sexy our instructional practices and tools, I suspect we will never be truly innovative if we try to marry those practices and tools with a traditional, centuries-old grading system. When we adopt new ideas that we determine are not only new, but better, are we also concomitantly doing away with the older ways of doing things that are now inferior?

Ultimately, as Tom Newkirk suggests above, our profession is not 
about us being brilliant (or “flashy”). In fact, some of the most

amazing lessons I have observed recently involved a teacher rarely speaking nor actively leading the learning. Instead, teaching is about our students being brilliant, with us ensuring that the environments (and “foundations”) we create and the plans we intentionally design allow our students to create, collaborate, communicate, think critically, and invest in their own learning. In the end, what is “flashy/trendy/sexy” is not what teachers are saying or doing, but what students are actually learning and to what extent they are growing. I fear that too often we focus on the cool things we are doing and the cool activities we are designing instead of leading with the learning. Leading with the “foundational” (learning targets, sound pedagogy, and results) while still emphasizing the “flashy” (innovation, experimentation, and technology) is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!



Monday, March 27, 2017

Treat them Like Adults?



“To demand consistent, adult-level competence of all k-12 students is inappropriate. We have to help students become mature decision-makers and time managers.” 
Rick Wormeli


Several weeks ago, I participated in a version of Instructional Rounds at an amazing middle school in our district. In our version, twelve educators from around the district conducted a series of fifteen-minute classroom observations in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classrooms. Many of the teachers participating as observers were K-5 teachers in the district. Our charge, as observers, was to spend the morning looking for examples of Innovation and the 4 Cs (Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking) in action.

 
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At the end of the morning, we concluded our observations and began the debriefing process in an effort to provide feedback to the school hosting the Rounds. During this debriefing, one K-5 teacher commented that she was struck by and impressed with the way the students and teachers interacted. She said something along the lines of, “It’s amazing! The students talk and interact just like mini adults; they seem so grown up and adult-like compared to how they are at the elementary school.” As a district level educator, I have the luxury of frequently observing teaching and learning at all grade levels across the district, from Pre-K thru 8th grade, including the K-5 teacher who made this comment. I reflected upon these observations quickly and responded, “You know, in some ways, interactions between teachers and students in all great teachers’ classrooms are 'adult-like.' In fact, when we were observing in a Pre-K classroom the other day (whose teacher is widely regarded as one of the most effective teachers anywhere), we commented that the teacher spoke with these 3- and 4- year olds much like she might speak with adults--yet, in a way completely appropriate to the fact that these children were not adults at all, but, instead, 3- and 4- year old preschool children.”

Now, please do not get me wrong; taken out of context, there is a great deal more harm than good that can come about from “treating children like adults.” See Rick Wormeli’s sound advice above as but one example. No one--including me--wants our teachers to expect our students to make decisions, manage time, behave, or perform academically like mature adults; indeed, we expect great teachers to take children where they currently are and help them become all they can be as they move forward. Yet, in some ways, it seems to me that our best teachers--whether at the Pre-K or high school level--do treat their students as "mini adults" in a few critically-important ways. They do this not, of course, by demanding adult-level behavior or learning performance, but simply by not treating students in a condescending manner and, instead, speaking with them respectfully, in a way that communicates high expectations for their learning and behavior along with confidence in students’ abilities to perform to high--albeit developmentally-appropriate--levels.

When I observe masterful teachers “treating students like adults” in a positive, supportive, appropriate, and encouraging manner, I typically observe students flourishing. Five ways I see such teachers “treating students like mini adults” in this manner include the following:

  • High Expectations: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we have high expectations for all learners--and ourselves. We do not expect some students to not meet standards, nor do we put any ceiling on how far any individual student can learn and grow. Instead, we view our standards as the floor for all students, but the ceiling for none.
  • Level of Control: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we give up some of our control, and turn that over to students. Whether teaching 12th grade or 1st grade, we allow for student voice and choice and do not feel the need to be the sole arbiter of what happens, when it happens, and how it happens in our classrooms. We may observe more, but do less. When we do less, our students may do more and when we do less and students do more, everyone enjoys learning more as a result.
  • Respectful Dialogue: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we do not speak in condescending tones nor do we speak to them as if they were babies, even at the very youngest grade levels. Instead, we speak to them with clarity, precision, and using age-appropriate language but not selling them short in terms of what they can understand. Our tone is friendly, warm, and energetic, but it also communicates seriousness about the work that lies ahead and the importance of doing it well.
  • Approach to Failure: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we acknowledge that a certain amount of failure is not only inevitable and to be expected, but also a productive part of the learning process. We encourage risk taking and try to normalize errors--with the understanding that we reflect on our failures and grow from these.
  • Accountability: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we also hold them accountable to established group norms, work standards, and patterns of behavior. Although we know that no student in any class will meet these standards of performance 100% of the time, we remind them of our expectations in these areas and hold them (and ourselves) accountable when we fall short. 
Many years ago, when I moved from teaching 1st grade to teaching 4th grade, I was amazed at how much more “adult-like” my students were. The same thing happened when I moved from 4th to 8th grade, and once more when I moved from teaching middle school to high school. At each stage, my students were just a bit more adult-like, in terms of appearance, academic capabilities, socialization, and independence. At the same time, some things about these widely-varying young people did not change, including the overarching way I treated these students and the way they responded to my treatment of them. When I expressed a bit of nervousness about teaching 8th grade after only having taught elementary students, the principal who was interviewing me said, “Don’t worry; what made you great as a 1st grade teacher is what will make you great as an 8th grade teacher. You will do the same things but on a different level.” In time, I learned that she was absolutely correct. My 1st grade classroom was an environment in which the teacher and all students worked hard, had fun, and were nice to each other every day. That recipe stayed the same when I moved to teaching 8th grade and then high school. The depth and breadth of our learning experiences varied significantly, but the way we treated each other remained largely similar.

We would no sooner expect adult-level competence
from our students any more than we would turn over the car keys to our 3rd grader, so I am wary when I suggest we treat our kids like adults in our classrooms. At the same time, our very best teachers manage to do this appropriately in several critical ways without losing sight of what the developmentally-appropriate activities and expectations are at each step along the journey to adulthood. Treating our students with the respect and dignity we offer our adult colleagues is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!




Friday, February 24, 2017

Directing Change

“One reason people resist change is because they focus on what they have to give up, instead of what they have to gain.” 
Rick Godwin

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Sometime around 1976, my dad came home from work one evening and shared some news that seemed astounding, radical, and just a bit scary: his company was offering all employees the option of having their regular paychecks directly deposited into a specified bank account rather than receiving an actual paper check! He called this crazy new idea, “Direct Deposit.” Being one of the savviest people I have ever known, and realizing this change was not a scary thing, but, rather, something that would actually make his life better (albeit it in a small way), he immediately signed up. I recall him, however, telling us that the vast majority of his colleagues chose to continue with regular paper checks, rather than changing over to this new, more effective and efficient pay option. The idea of opting for this newfangled approach to getting paid seemed just a tad too risky, or simply different, apparently. My dad’s colleagues were focused more on what they would have to give up (an actual paycheck they had been receiving for many years which they fully understood) than on what they had to gain (e. g., never having to worry about depositing a paycheck again, and having their money deposited into their accounts sooner and more safely than previously).

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Obviously, almost every single working person reading this post today has their paycheck directly deposited into a bank account and never gives it a second thought. In fact, many readers have likely never received a traditional paycheck requiring a visit to the bank. Trust me, though: in 1976, this change initiative struck me as nothing short of radical. Many of my father’s peers--presumably older and wiser than me at the the time--obviously felt the same, too scared to opt in to a program then, that, today, we all realize would have made their lives distinctly better. You know what eventually happened, of course. Over time, the fear went away, as more and more employees learned from these “risk-taking” early adopters that direct deposit is, indeed, a change for the good, not a change to be feared.

When I accepted my first full-time job in education (teaching 1st grade), our large school district offered direct deposit, but it was not required. Having learned from my father several years earlier, I eagerly signed up for my pay (a whopping annual salary of $12,673.00) to be directly deposited into my checking account. Like many employers, our school district allowed employees to choose either form of payment for quite some time. Then, a tipping point was reached and Direct Deposit became no longer an option, but simply the way the district paid all employees. The few remaining holdouts were simply required at that point to change from receiving a traditional paycheck to a direct deposit pay stub.
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When I moved to Illinois in 2009 and served as a principal at a middle school, I learned that, apparently, direct deposit--something I had long taken for granted--was not the required form of pay for employees everywhere. That February, we experienced a blizzard that caused us to cancel school for students. As principal, I still went in to catch up on work. That morning, one of our teachers knocked on the door. I let her in and asked what she was doing out in this crazy weather. It turns out that the day before had been a pay day and this teacher stopped in to pick up her paycheck. I was stunned and asked her why in the world she did not simply have her check deposited automatically into her account (privately, I was flabbergasted that there was a person alive in 2009 who made a conscious decision NOT to opt for direct deposit when it was an option). Her answer, of course, made no defensible sense; rather, she said something along the lines of, “I’ve taught her for thirty years and have always received a paycheck.” Still somewhat stunned, I dug through the mail, found her paycheck, and sent her on her way, incredulous that a change my dad embraced as an obviously smart thing to do in 1976 had still not been accepted by everyone 33 years later.

As one who often thinks about change, I have been reflecting on this quirky example. If something like direct deposit, with absolutely no downside and only benefits, had not won universal acceptance after more than 30 years, what does this say about more daunting change initiatives we may need to consider?

A few thoughts:
  • In schools, when initiating change that only impacts adults (not children), perhaps it behooves us to offer choice, allowing trailblazers to opt in. If the change proves to be beneficial, more and more folks will begin taking the plunge.
  • Having said that, once the change has been embraced by a significant majority of employees over time, it may make sense to eventually do away with the option altogether, and simply mandate change for all at that point.
  • On the other hand, if the change involves what is best for students, and we can determine that the change will improve students’ lives in some way large or small, I am less sure that we can afford to let adults in our schools “opt in” to the change. Perhaps the change needs to be mandated for all at the outset.
  • We must actively listen to resistors and be open to reasoned arguments against the change, even delaying or opting against change when appropriate. At the same time, any argument along the lines of, “But we have always done it this way” does not qualify as such.
  • Change is still a tricky deal. No matter how beneficial the change, some will simply never voluntarily undergo it. Again, I worked with a highly intelligent person who opted against having her pay directly deposited...in 2009!

Recently in our district, we were debating how (not whether) to move forward with a change relating to technology. At first, I was not convinced it was a student issue as much as an adult issue, and I argued for taking a “Direct Deposit” approach, allowing anyone
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who wanted to try the new technology to do so without requiring everyone to follow suit. However, others insisted that it would impact not only teachers, but also students, and felt we should move forward with the change for all staff. We are still debating the pros and cons of this one. On the other hand, many districts have changed over to standards based grading, assessing, and reporting. Although I realize many schools start by allowing individual teachers to implement such practices, this is one that seems so beneficial to student learning that I wonder if we should move forward as an entire school or district--once, of course, we have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills to move forward with an effective implementation? What are some change initiatives in your setting for which you would allow others to choose whether to enact? And what are some others that are coming down the pike that would be non-negotiable change initiatives? There will always be resistance with any change, of course--even complete winners like Direct Deposit. However, any such resistance some may be feeling is likely due to focusing on what they know they will have to give up rather than on potential benefits of the change.

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Changing from the “tried and true” to the “new and unproven” is never easy. Unfortunately, some proposed changes are not quite as obviously beneficial as changing from traditional paychecks to direct deposit pay. Still, our very finest people know that if there is a chance the change will be beneficial in some way for students, it is incumbent upon us to take a chance. Accepting change if we suspect it will benefit students--even when we are giving up something that is working well--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!