Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Ides of March Blogging Challenge is Over (#idesmar)

Well, here it is just before midnight and I am writing one more blog post in order to meet my own Blogging Challenge: the Ides of March. This is post #15. I did it (with only stretching the non-existent rules).

I am so glad that there are several educators who  accepted the challenge. It has been great reading what they have to say. One teacher told me that the challenge has really gotten her to write like never before. Me too!

Well, since I am enjoying this, I will post tomorrow with the challenge for April. Stay tuned.


Strong Community Needs to Be Built (#idesmar)

Another question I was recently asked to write about: How would you strengthen community among students, teachers, parents and other educational stakeholders?
A strong sense of community at school does not happen by accident; community needs to be cultivated by the principal. Each stakeholder has different needs.
Students need to feel a sense of belonging at school. Establishing a school-wide program such as Steps to Respect provides an avenue for students to feel heard and respected. This is followed by a common behavior code so everyone knows the expectations. I worked with faculty to create a positive behavior recognition (but not reward) program, so students feel appreciated for the good they do. The combination of a pro-respect program with a recognition program laid a foundation for our community.
To build on the foundation we need to gather the students on a regular basis. During my favorite gathering, held on day one, I introduce the entire staff to the students, while the students cheer for each adult. Everyone starts the year with a smile. I gradually turn over the responsibility for the assemblies to Student Council. We gather to learn, to perform and watch, and to celebrate.
The Student Council is my primary way to listen to students and to give them some control. I encourage the student council to listen to their classmates and to ask me to make changes. When they ask, I listen and consider. Some of the best initiatives to come out of Student Council are community service projects that engage the whole community toward a common goal. When we respect students and give them some control over their environment, the community is strengthened.
I am visible and involved in the classrooms, bus lane, lunchroom, playground, and evening events. Parents need to know that I am accessible and responsive, so I make sure to return calls the same day or have the secretary schedule a meeting. I also create a Public Relations plan to get information out to parents and the broader community. Most importantly, I strengthen the community by treating people with respect.
However, access to the principal and information about the school are not enough to engage the parents and the community. The volunteer coordinator starts with a small group willing to help with general tasks. The parent council creates a database of parent skills and interests that we can draw on. Finally, I invite parents and others to school to share their knowledge or skills, to volunteer, or to be the audience. I love watching the crowd at the Senior Citizen Luncheon and Concert. Of course, once we invite them, we feed them, as nothing attracts people better than children and food.
School staff love to eat as well; people who break bread together form strong groups. Since social events are vital to the health of the community, we create a regular schedule of staff parties. Teachers deserve some time enjoying themselves, so faculty meetings and professional development sessions always begin with social time and food.
Just as access and information are not enough for the parent community, food and laughter are not enough for the staff. They also need to be part of a learning community. The staff needs to work together to decide what they need to learn, because people will be most productive if given autonomy, time, and a sense of purpose. I often encourage teachers to work with other staff besides their teammates. There is a lot to learn all around the building.
Eating, laughing, and learning are building blocks of strong community. There is another component at school: shared leadership. To bring as much staff into the decision making process as possible, I created a Faculty Advisory Council, a Leadership Council, and other groups. So staff know what their role is, I use a tool called “Patterns of Participation Matrix” to be explicit whether I want staff to initiate, collaborate, advise, or support. The staff needs to feel belonging and ownership at school.
Building a strong sense of community among the students, staff, parents, and others is among the most vital work in which a principal engages.
Those are my ideas. What do you think? What are some ways that YOU can strengthen our school?

I am an Artist (#idesmar)

A few weeks ago, I was asked to write about how the arts have influenced me personally and professionally. Here is what I wrote:
I am an artist. There I said it. I am not a bohemian walking around with oil paint on my pants. I am not an art student who knows the difference between a 6B and 3B pencil. I am not a trumpet player busking at the train station. I am not a poet in a beret with one of those really long cigarette holders. No, I am not that kind of artist.
Still, I am an artist. I've been creating and enjoying a variety of art my whole life.
The arts have been a part of my life since the beginning. My parents have finally forgiven me for drawing on the hallway wall when I was 2. I was fortunate to attend a middle and high school that valued the arts. I acted in every play from 6th through 12th grade. I sang in the regular and select choirs. I was the photography editor of the school newspaper. One summer, I attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen, MI, as a theater major. In college, I focused on technical theater and built scenery and props. I continued with tech theater for a couple of years and gradually got interested in woodworking. Although more a craft than an art, my woodworking was a creative outlet for a few years.
My daughter has been the impetus for another artistic outlet: drawing. Some yeas ago, I collected a few drawing pencils and started to sketch. I found that I liked to draw, but I did not like to show my drawings to anyone. Now, I watch her draw and end up joining in. This year, I took a leap and created an account on ArtSnacks. I have only uploaded a few drawings so far, but it is a thrill knowing my drawings are out there. (OK, so maybe I do know the difference between 6B and 3B pencils.)
Something kind of cool happened about ten years ago. I found an old trumpet. I played for a while and then forgot about it. In 2007, when I became principal of Spofford Pond, I could hear the different bands practicing each morning before school. One day I remembered that old trumpet. As a way of showing support for the band program, and to satisfy my own artistic drive, I asked if I could sit in on the beginning band once they started in January. The band director was thrilled. So, I was the tall one sitting in the back row with the fourth graders in the band. I was the only band member to bring coffee and my school walkie-talkie to rehearsals. I even joined the group for the big concert (I ended up filling in on snare drum for the Theme from Star Wars when none of the kids could keep the beat). I still play the trumpet, although too sporadically to get any good. Now, my daughter (5 years old) has started to play. Maybe she will one day be the busker.
Professionally, the arts have always been part of my educational outlook. I integrated arts into my history lessons back when I taught middle school. As an administrator, I have supported arts during tough budget times. I have made it clear that I value the arts for the benefits they bring to children.
The arts are known to improve children’s academic motivation, achievement, and school attendance. Training in and practice of the arts helps students gain self-confidence, creativity, and success. Children feel good about themselves when they have something non-academic to enjoy and find success in. Students can create fantastic art together regardless of their background. Stanford Thompson, Director of Tune Up Philly, also notes that the arts nurture social-emotional and behavioral development by providing family and community experiences. Performances at school are something parents can enjoy and appreciate regardless of language barriers or cultural differences. Nothing brings parents of all different ethnic groups together at school faster than a concert, play, or art show. The arts are vital to a full education and a full life.
I still don’t own a beret, and I’ve never used oil paint. I do draw and play the trumpet. I do support and value the arts in school. The arts benefit me, and the arts benefit children. I am an artist. Students are artists.
What about you? Are you an artist? Do you truly support the arts in school?

Artist Ellen from jimjarmo on flickr CC BY 2.0

Innovation Instruction not Technology (#idesmar)

A few weeks ago, George Couros wrote a good article called "Innovation Instruction."

This is not about the tool, it is about learning.  The tool is just the medium we are using at the time.  I am doing my best to use the term “innovative instruction” (thanks Alec) when talking about what works best for our students.  This could mean using a pencil, a computer, a brush, your hands, whatever, but focuses on innovative ways for students to learn.
Let’s just ensure that there is a balance of tools we are using, and just focus on what best meets the needs of our students.
Are we there yet?

Like most good bloggers, he finishes with a thought provoking question. Are we there yet? From what I have seen in most classrooms, no we are not. Of course every teacher I know is somewhere on the path. There are those who are innovating with exciting technology and others who are innovating without new tools.

So many in my PLN and the edutwitterverse seem convinced that the only path forward is through technology. Me, I'm not as certain.

I like George's shift in focus to "innovative instruction." Starting today, I will make the same shift.

Are we there yet? 

Not sure, but we're on the way.

Publish on Paper!? (#idesmar)

In my last post, I mentioned that I would be publishing the first grade writing project after printing, the chapters.

What, did I say printing? On paper? How 20th Century! Humph!

I still like paper even if I use the stuff very sparingly. Paper books have a feel that electronics books do not. Paper is much easier for many first graders. Like it or not, we are not post-paper yet.

There is another reason. I am creating this book with the kids as a volunteer in the local public school. This is not my place. This school has lots of information on its website, but no other examples of student work. This is not a digital school.

Hold on, I am supposed to be a 21st Century connected principal, aren't I? Here is my plan. Once the book is published, I will digitize it. Then, I will talk with the teacher and the principal about putting it online. I will show them how easy it is to do and to share with the parents. I think they will love it.

Stay tuned for digital publication information.

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Ready to Print (#idesmar)

Today, I went into the elementary school where I have been working with first graders a writing project. The good news is that today's group all finished typing their chapter of our book. Yeah!

I was totally psyched when the last girl refused my offer to help type. She told me that this would be the first story she ever wrote alone and the first story that she typed on the computer. She was beaming. I was beaming.

Soon, I will return, and we will create illustrations for the book. I can't wait to publish.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Elevator Statement Challenge (#idesmar)

A few weeks ago, Tom Schimmer challenged us to create our elevator statements about 21st Century Learning.

With all of the talk about Personalized Learning for the 21st Century, I thought this might be a fun challenge and way for all of us to refine our messages and learn from each other. I am a big believer in making messages simple and accessible, which is why I think this challenge is so relevant. It’s very easy to kill a good idea with a poorly constructed message, especially early in the implementation/exploration phase.

So….here is your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

“You are attending a conference on 21st Century Learning (yes, I see the irony!) At the end of the first day you step into the elevator at the hotel in which the conference is being held with someone who is NOT attending the conference and is NOT an educator. They turn to you, notice your name badge, and say as the doors are closing, “You’re attending that conference on 21st Century Leanring, right? What’s that all about anyway?”

You have 4 floors (3-5 sentences) to explain to this stranger what 21st Century learning is and give one example of what would be different. Can you do it? How would you respond?

Good luck! This message will never self-destruct so send it to every educator you know!!

So, here is something that I wrote for a principal job application. I would convert it from written language to spoken, but the ideas are the same.

The 21st century is an exciting time for education. Never before have there been so many ways to gather information, create content, make global connections, and meet student needs. We need to teach media literacy so that students can be discerning consumers of information. Students can be writers and artists with an authentic, online audience. Instead of just reading about a place, we can Skype with students there to learn even more. Using technology, we can tailor learning for individuals. 21st century education can be summarized with four words: inform, create, connect, and personalize.

What is your elevator statement?

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Things We Should Not Do at School (#idesmar)

Richard Scarry gave this advice to children in 1976. I like that he didn't just make a list of rules. I am also totally impressed with the flight of that paper airplane (of course I am very disappointed in the raccoon(?) in the pink shirt - he should know better).

When I look at this page from Scarry's In My Town my first reaction is just how much school has changed since Scarry put out this book.

Just look at the old wooden desks set in rows facing the teacher. The teacher is sitting and reading from what I assume to be the textbook. The students are barely engaged in the learning (unless this shows a physics class).

Today, in many classrooms, this scene would be totally different - the desks would be that hard plastic stuff.

Seriously, most classrooms that I have visited in recent years are far more dynamic than this illustration. Of course students still mess around sometimes, but most decent teachers keep the students as engaged as they can be.

Anyway, I figure this is as good a time as any to launch a list of things not to do at school.

1. Don't rely on the textbook.
2. Don't keep the desks in rows. Change the chairs depending on the needs of activity planned.
3. Don't be satisfied with the status quo.
4. Don't give up on a student - ever.
5. Don't stop learning.
6. Don't stop sharing.
7. Don't stop caring.
8. Don't stop listening to others' points of view. One cannot know all things. (added from Maureen)

What else belongs on this list?

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Say 'No' to the Status Quo (#idesmar)

Before I am demonized for protecting the status quo in my last post, please understand that I advocate many changes in education. We have a long way to go to provide a truly fantastic education for the 21st Century.

I expect teachers to work very hard to meet the needs of a wildly diverse student body. I expect teachers to keep learning new content and new pedagogy throughout their careers. I expect teachers to find ways to ignite the passions of their students. I expect students to take responsibility for their learning in an environment that encourages them to be creative thinkers. I expect teachers to take advantage of the vast resources available to them through an online Personal Learning Network. I expect teachers to be responsible for their own prossional development in an environment that encourages them to collaborate and grow.

I expect principals to tackle the difficult task of truly supervising the teachers even when that means working to remove an ineffective, veteran teacher. I expect principals to give their teachers a sense of purpose, a large amount of autonomy, and the time/resources to gain mastery when creating professional development programs,

I expect all of us to talk less about the poverty-related problems our students bring to their education and talk more about what we are going to do to improve their learning. I expect to hear talk like 'What can I do to be better?'

I expect the community to trust their educators. I expect the community to want to be involved. I expect the community to support their schools.

I expect a lot, but I know it can be done.

The thing is, once we improve in all the ways that I've mentioned, we just have to change more. Our society and our children will never stop changing, and we have to change with them. Good teaching will always require good learning on the part of the teacher.

So, say 'No' to the status quo.

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Speak Up for Our Public Schools (#idesmar)

This is the fourth in a short series examining the blog post, "What We're Trying to Say Here..." Media Training Tips for Teachers by Roxana Elden.

I have recently shared some of Roxana Elden's article about media training for teaches. Now for the most important lesson.

Speak Up!

You know that America's public schools are not failing. You know that there are only a few bad apples among the many good and great teachers. You know that know matter what 'they' say, poverty makes a huge difference. You know that all of the testing regimes out there show results that are split largely by socioeconomic-economic status. You know that your unions protect you and have given you a decent salary.

Speak up and defend our schools and our profession. You have to engage people on the local scene, write blogs articles, showcase what works in your classrooms, comment on blogs, talk to your non teacher friends, write to the editor of your local paper. Do what it takes to stand up for our schools.

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Don't Make Their Point for Them (#idesmar)

This is the third in a short series examining the blog post, "What We're Trying to Say Here..." Media Training Tips for Teachers by Roxana Elden.

Principle #5: Avoid restating the opposing viewpoint.
Teachers tell students to address the opposing viewpoints in essays and debates. On TV, however, a restatement of the other side's position can be taken out of context or used to make you sound defensive. We won't hear the charter school principal preface his response by saying, "It's true that we don't accept the lowest ten percent of students, but..." although he would gain more of our respect if he did. Teachers, on the other hand, are more likely to acknowledge the complexity of the issue by leading with, "It's not that we're against accountability, but... (the proposed measures discourage teachers from taking on the neediest students)." Maybe we're trying to lead by example--after all, good teachers know we have to model the behavior we'd like to see in class--but when the sequel to Waiting for Superman comes out, guess what part of our nuanced response they're most likely to use.

If you ever find yourself debating the merits of some education "reform" proposal and there is any kind of recording going on, just be careful. Unfortunately, well reasoned, nuanced arguments are often lost on the media and many Americans. Stick to your message.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Stay on Message (#idesmar)

This is the second in a short series examining the blog post, "What We're Trying to Say Here..." Media Training Tips for Teachers by Roxana.

While Roxana's advice is aimed specifically for those educators who find themselves at a talk show or forum focusing on education, the advice is easily adaptable for general public school advocacy by any educator.

I loved West Wing on NBC. One of the little tidbits from that show that has stuck with me over the years to place during one of the elections (I can no longer recall if it was Bartlett's first election in flashback, the second election, or Jimmy Smit's election). The candidate kept getting the advice to stay on message and control the message. So, when I read Roxana's fourth principle, the idea resonated.

Principle #4: Stay on message.
When students ask questions in class, teachers give the most direct answer we can. We'd never get away with repeating slight variations on the same three points for forty minutes. Not so with the folks talking for the cameras. This explains why during the "question and comment section," politicians are more likely to repeat their earlier statements in a soothing voice than actually address our comments and questions. It is also explains the tendency of charter school principals to begin nearly every statement with, "At (insert name of charter school), we are committed to (restatement of charter school mission statement)." This guarantees that reporters looking for a quote from the meeting will have to quote a talking point. Rather than be frustrated by the disingenuous show, teachers would do well to concentrate on our own message, and give the media a chance to quote our side of the story.

In short, the idea is to answer questions by making the point you want to make and worry later if you have actually answered the exact question. When I do this, I do not emulate the politicians that Roxana's mentions. Instead, I blend a direct answer with my point. I want make sure I am responsive, but I also want to make sure whoever is listening takes away what I want them to take from the conversation.

The bottom line is that educators need to speak eloquently about how wonderful public schools are. Stay on message and they will remember what you tell them.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

7 Sound Bites for Ed Reform (#idesmar)

In January, Rick Hess allowed guest blogger, Roxanna Elden, to present "What We're Trying to Say Here..." Media Training Tips for Teachers.

As I have written and presented throughout out this year, I believe strongly that we educators need to do a better job talking about all of the good that our public schools really do. Over the next several posts, I will use Roxana's article to share some ideas.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my PLN for a phrase that educators could use when talking about education reform. I got the idea from this part of Roxana's article:

Principle #3: Find your "quotable quote."
Teachers prepare students for academic discussions, but television's short attention span for each issue doesn't give us time to build logical points based on evidence. Politicians, on the other hand, know they have to boil down points to manageable sound bites that are easy to quote and hard to take out of context. (And hard to argue against without sounding like a jerk.) They will often lead with statements like, "Teachers are the most important factors in our children's education," then pause for applause. Meanwhile, we're waiting for the conversation to turn toward issues like over-emphasis on questionable test scores. What we don't realize is a savvy politician is unlikely to say the word "test" at any point during an event full of teachers. He or she is more likely to employ a series of practiced sound bites about how "children, especially in this vibrant community that I am so happy to be visiting today, deserve only the best education," followed by some generic comment about the importance of identifying outstanding educators. If teachers want our points to get equal airtime, we need to take our own main points and condense them into equally media-friendly phrases. Come up with three different succinct ways to express each of the three main points on your list. Also remember your audience is not the people you see every day who already agree with you, but fair-minded people who may not know basic facts that insiders take for granted.

I got a few fantastic ideas through twitter.

@slaleman Edu is about giving EVERYONE a shot at the Amer. dream, not just those with money or connections. Edu can be great equalizer

@QZLPatriotHawk: Simply put...Hope and Equality for ALL.

@Akevy613 Helping students succeed. Giving our students tools to be successful in life. Facilitating the growth of tomorrows leaders

@j_allen: Passionate

@walterASCD: We teach the future! (old slogan)

@walterASCD fueling the engine of our information economy by preparing students for the opportunities that lay in the century ahead

@ericjuli we are an opportunity to end the cycle of poverty for kids with dreams @myen

Go ahead, come up with your own quotable quote. Share it here in the comments and on twitter.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Put the Book Down (#idesmar)

Coffee Shopphoto © 2008 Dennis M | more info (via: Wylio)

You hear the darnedest things in coffee shops. Today, I overheard the following (paraphrased with name changed):

My daughter, Sally, is having trouble in math.
She brought home a letter from teacher telling us that 3/4 of the students did poorly on the last test. Three quarters!.
Sally says this teacher is never available for extra help after school. She says she doesn’t understand any of what he is teaching. Also, she’s bored.

I listened and immediately started to figure out what the student must not be telling her mom. The teacher must not be too bad; it must be the kid’s fault.

So, my husband went to the parent conference to talk to the guy. The teacher sounded surprised that he is getting lots of feedback about the letter. He just doesn't understand why kids aren’t understanding the math. My husband asked him if he is trying more ways to explain the math. The young teacher says he's doing what the book says. My husband says you have to find ways for the kids to understand. Put the book down. Teach it differently. Explain it more to them.
The teacher got offended. He said he would give up his Friday afternoons to stay with the students. My husband assured him that Sally would be there.
At this point, I’d given up hope for this poor kid. I figured the teacher was no good.

Sally came home the next day and told me that math class was so much better today. She understands what they are doing. She gets it now.
What was different, I asked her. 
He didn't use the book. He talked to us instead. He explained things.
Who'd think that a little pep talk from a parent would be all it took to change this teacher? [said with serious amounts of sarcasm.]
So, there is hope for this young math teacher. Thank goodness.

The moral of this story is…

always listen carefully in a coffee shop.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

ReFraming Organizations #idesmar

click for full size
Over the long term, there is one education book to which I keep returning, Reframing Organizations, by Lee Bolman and Terrance Deal. The main idea of the book is that school leaders need to look at situations and decisions through four separate frames each time. Those frames are Structural, Human Resources, Symbolic, and Political. I keep this graphic of the four frames above my desk as a reminder.

The ideas here are not that different from many other treatises on education leadership. I guess that I am a relatively visual learner and the frames stuck with me easily.

Cover of "Reframing Organizations: Artist...Cover via AmazonIf you haven’t read the book, I recommend you do.