Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Cycle of Care, Empathy, and Engagement

There are no students at my school who enter 9th grade, stay four years, attend classes, excel, engage, and graduate as planned four years later. Not one. Not ever. The journey is filled with starts and stops, failures and more failures, fear, self-sabotage, and self-doubt. Generally, students come to us in 9th grade and hopefully they enter only two to three years below grade level in reading and math. Hopefully. Most enter 9th grade reading and doing math below a 5th grade level. But that’s not the bad part. They’ve been passed along in elementary school, learning from their experiences that good kids move on to the next grade, bad kids move on to the next grade, struggling students move on, and those who excel move on. Success is measured by compliance, not learning. So students enter 9th grade knowing, from all their lived experiences that showing up at school is what is needed to advance to the next grade; compliance, not learning is king. Add to this equation a healthy dose of inner city issues-be it poverty, trauma, loss, or violence, or maybe all at the same time. Then add a just a dash of puberty and the teenage sense of invincibility that comes with it, and we have ourselves the educational molotov cocktail entering our school doors on the first day of 9th grade. One hundred of those educational cocktails enter our doors in August.
Then the work begins. I use the term work, but it’s really a war. We fight daily for the hearts and minds of our students. We fight daily to plant the seeds, then to cultivate, and grow hopes and dreams for a positive and most importantly, a named future. We fight daily to shift from compliance to learning. We fight daily to teach skills. We fight daily to teach students to view themselves as learners. We fight daily to make our small school the eye of the storm so the violence of the neighborhood and the despair in the community can knock at our doors, but it cannot get inside. We fight daily to care about students, empathize with students, and teach students the tools to engage on their own as graduates with self-efficacy and agency.
I think of this fight as a cycle of Care, Empathy, and Engagement. Sometimes one leads to the other, and sometimes they are concurrent. Here’s a profile of three young men at different stages in this cycle.

D, T, and A

D enrolled at Design Lab in August of 2013. I don’t remember how many years below grade level he was when he arrived, but I know for sure he wasn’t close to reading or thinking, or problem solving on a 9th grade level.

T enrolled in August of 2014. Soon after his arrival, we lost our 9th grade history teacher and 9th grade English teacher for the year, and I couldn’t find certified replacements for months. T spent most of 9th grade taught by substitute teachers.

A enrolled in August of 2017. He came to our school because his sister graduated last year, and his mother believes we can get him to the finish line. A is on grade level as a reader. But he’s in and out of the juvenile detention center and he keeps on violating his parole.

D began stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down at our school soon after he arrived, but it took me awhile to figure it out. He played and laughed all the time, and by the end of first semester of 9th grade, he had failed every class. In February of 2014, as D continued to fail every course, I was able to purchase chromebooks for every student. We went from having six desktops in most classrooms, to a computer in everyone’s hands. I lacked systems and structures to manage the chromebooks and students started stealing them soon after I put them into use in classrooms. D continued to come to school every day, although he learned nothing.
Sometime in the spring, I figured out that D was the primary chromebook thief. I confronted him, scared him, and tricked him into admitting his crime by pretending I had more information than I really did. He had at least a dozen chromebooks at his home, and another bunch at a friend’s house. But he had sold many to a store that bought stolen goods from anyone willing to sell. He had sold enough computers to ensure a felony theft charge would follow him for the rest of his life. What to do? He had broken my trust. He had stolen from our school. And I intended to expel him and have him arrested to show the rest of my school what happened to computer thieves.

T spent most of 9th grade actually running through our hallways. His teachers couldn’t handle him, and he had a partner in crime who encouraged every bad behavior you can imagine, and many you can’t. T was either quiet in class or outrageously disruptive. When quiet, he spent most of his time, with his hood up to hide his headphones. He could tune out whatever the teacher was saying by listening to music. Depending on the course, he either failed quietly, or loudly. But he failed them all. He alternated between invisible with some teachers, and angrily cursing and yelling at others. T lives in a neighborhood where he must be in a gang to survive. There is no choice, and he started skipping school more than he attended school. Every time he returned we talked privately. I challenged him to either drop out or engage in school. I told him his circumstances outside of school could control, and ultimately end his life, or he could take charge of his own life and make something better. He never fully engaged; but he never left either. T has been coming to school, and trying to be a ghost for years.

In the first week of school this year, A cursed at a teacher. The teacher asked him a question, about whatever the learning was intended to be, and A’s very clear answer was “Fuck You.” When A got to me, I told him that how he talks to people matters, and our conversation degenerated from there pretty quickly. Within seconds, we were nose to nose, and A hadn’t threatened me yet, but he was ready to hit me. We were inches apart, and I whispered to him, “If you hit me, you might knock me down, but you will end up leaving this building in handcuffs. How do you win this?” I could see A thinking it through. He cursed at me to save face, and took a step back and sat down.

I brought D’s family in to my office to tell them he was being expelled. As I remember it, two uncles and his mother came to the meeting. One uncle said nothing-he just sat there filled with rage; either at me or D, it wasn’t clear. The other uncle talked about D as being the hope of the family. He was to be the first to graduate from high school. He was to be one of the only men to stay out of jail. He was the one who would make it; how could he have done this? And his mother sat quietly, seething. I hadn’t told them what my plan was, and before I could, D’s mother, in a voice filled with loss and anger said, “Kick him out of your school. Have him arrested. I’m done with him.” And then she stormed out, slamming the door behind her. I sent them away, without making a decision, and told them to come back the next day.
I didn’t expel him, and I didn’t call the police. I decided that what D needed most was care. If he were to fail, let him fail knowing that he did it to himself. Let him fail knowing that someone was there by his side, and his failure was his, and his alone. And maybe he wouldn’t fail. The uncles came back, and this time, I had my custodian, and my basketball coach/assistant custodian, with me. I told D he wasn’t expelled and I wouldn’t be calling the police. I told him he couldn’t transfer to another school, no matter what, and if he tried to, I would call the police about the chromebooks. And I told D he owed me a debt. He needed to volunteer to work at the end of each school day and during school vacations, including summer break to work off the monetary debt. But the debt could not, and would not be fully paid until he graduated from high school.

T was shot last year in a gang-related incident. I still don’t know the whole story, nor do I want to. But some people came to his house and shot at the windows. Subsequently, T ended up shot in the foot. I never heard the full story, but he stayed out of school for months. The cover story was he couldn’t walk, and that was partially true, but the real story was he and his mother feared that leaving his house would result in his death. So he stayed home. I tried to convince him to withdraw from school, so he could be in an online program, to have some chance of doing something school related in his absence. But his mother told me that withdrawing from our school meant he would never graduate. He was staying. No matter what.

I’ve suspended A over and over again in the first semester. He is so angry. His mother refuses to come in most days; she says he’s too difficult. He’s either in class for the entire period or kicked out within seconds of arrival. There’s rarely an in between. He’s failed every course in the first semester, and our testing to check for readiness or lack thereof for the state graduation tests, tells us he’s learned absolutely nothing in the first semester. His behavior before Winter Break got progressively worse, to the point where I called his probation officer four days in a row. Although I didn’t know it until we returned from break, A’s behavior in school, resulted in him spending a week in lock up at the Juvenile Detention Center over winter break. He blames me for his time in lock up.

D’s mother never stepped foot in our school again. He worked summers and vacations, and even when we told him he had worked enough, he asked to come back for more. The story isn’t a happy one after I let him stay. He gave up, over and over again, and someone always had to pick him back up again. First it was my custodian who became his mentor, and caregiver and taught him what hard work looked and felt like, and what it meant to take pride in a job well done. Then my assistant custodian/basketball coach took up the mantle and became his caregiver-teaching him resilience, toughness and to never give up. Later my Campus Coordinator taught D the content he needed to pass the last two state exams standing in his way. Her care and willingness to make time to teach D, when she clearly had no time to give, allowed him to cross the finish line. And I, I did what I do. I was the eye of the storm, offering care when none was warranted. I cared by being angry for D, and occasionally angry with D. I cared by offering him a glimpse of what the future could hold. I empathized when he wanted to give up, picked him up when he fell, pushed him when he needed it, and cheered as often as possible.
On December 21, 2017, he graduated. And as I shook his hand, and hugged him on that stage, I whispered in his ear, that his debt is fully paid. After graduation, I stood with his family, and his mother, who I hadn’t seen since that day in my office, told me with tears in her eyes, that D is planning to attend college. We didn’t discuss our last conversation, held years before.
In two weeks, I’ll be speaking to 8th graders who are making high school choices for next year. D will speaking by my side. He’s agreed to share his story with the potential class of 2022. He’s also coming in next week so my Campus Coordinator can help him with his college applications. He wants to attend the University of Akron in the fall.

T sat with my Campus Coordinator earlier this week. He’s 19 years old now, and there’s no chance for him to graduate in May. He’s accepted a job at a factory, and he’s right on the edge of dropping out. But he doesn’t want to. My Campus Coordinator worked out an academic game plan, where, if he does everything, and works incredibly hard, he could graduate in August. I came in to speak with him, and he looked me in my eyes and told me he wants to graduate. I believe him. Can he do it? I don’t know. But for the first time since he arrived, I know that he wants to graduate as much as we want him to graduate. And that’s a start. He’s been shot, missed a ton of school, and has a job he doesn’t want. But he needs to do engage in school. He needs to put in the time. I’m incredibly hopeful I have the opportunity to give him the diploma will have earned in early August.

A came to school yesterday incredibly angry. He started cursing at me immediately and was dressed to promote antagonism and anger. He came to school to fight, not with another student, but certainly with me, and his every action screamed “I dare you to engage with me. I dare you to connect with me. I dare you to get me to try.” I brought him to our Planning Center, the place students go to decompress, or when they need to be taken out of class. He looked at me with such anger and hatred in his eyes, and said, “I ain’t doing anything you ask.” I told him he had a choice. He could pull his pants up, take out his head phones, and leave his phone, his headphones, his hoodies, his do-rag, and a bunch of other items with our Planning Center teacher, or if he intended to keep them all on, he could walk out of the building. There was no in between. He yelled at me, cursed at me, and told me in no uncertain terms how awful I am. My Planning Center teacher stood up and raised her voice in a way that she never does. “How dare you!” she said. “How dare you let this man, care more about you than you care about yourself!” A ignored her words, and said to me, “I’m going to class, and I’ll wear what I want to wear and say what I want to say to whoever, whenever.” I told him if he walked into any class, with any of the items I had demanded he remove, I would physically remove him from the building. “And when you put your hands on me, I will beat you down.” He said. “You may beat me down,” I said, “and then you will go back to jail. It’s your move.” We waited, silently, in a tension-filled office. Slowly, and quietly, without looking at me, A handed all of the items I required to our Planning Center teacher, and I walked away without another word.
A stayed and spoke with her for another thirty minutes or so. While I know what was said, it’s not for public consumption. And then A, went to class. And he had what might have been his best day of learning all year.

D’s story is one that appears to end happily. So far. He’s graduated, but there’s still more to do, and his story isn’t over. T is poised at the precipice. On one side is a diploma with choices for a better future. On the other side, he’s a drop-out at nineteen, living a life he hates. And A’s story is still in the first chapter. Of all three young men, he has the most academic potential. If he can learn to be a positive young man, he could absolutely succeed at a four year college. He can be anything and anyone he wants. But can he stay out of jail? I don’t know. Can he pass any high school class? He can for sure. Will he choose to? I just don’t know.

There aren’t any students in our school for whom the road is easy. We care. We empathize, and we get them to engage. And sometimes it works, and other times it doesn’t. Either way, the cycle continues.

Until next week...

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Disconnected Connections

I’ve never been so connected through social media, and it’s never been this lonely. I hear about the echo chamber that twitter is for many users, and that simply isn’t my experience. Although I’m connected, I haven’t been able to engage with any of the tweets I’ve read for many months. I want to use what I’m reading to grow my practice, and I want to apply the ideas I get from the chats I participate in, but there’s a chasm between what I read, and what I’m actually able to do at our school. 

I last posted on this blog on November 7, 2015. I’ve thought about writing again hundreds of times, but I never do, because it feels impossible to share the context of everything that happens at our school. But the reality is, I need the edu-twitter-verse wisdom to help me move forward. The work is simply too hard to do it entirely on my own and I want to find ways to connect again.

I’m a huge fan of the movie, The Princess Bride. You know the scene when Fezzik and Inigo give the Man in Black the miracle pill and he wakes up. Inigo needs to explain what’s happening to Wesley, so he says, “Let me explain. No, there is too much, let me sum up. So, here’s my version of that:
  • This is my seventh year as principal of Design Lab Early College High School, an inner city high school in Cleveland 
  • I spent the first six years: 
    • Making the school safe. We still have occasional problems, as any high school, and any inner city high school certainly does, but I no longer have to sneak into my house to hide other people’s blood on my clothing from my wife. (#truth) 
    • Finding and hiring and creating positions to bring in teachers who care about kids and have the skills to teach them. 
      • One year, I went an entire school year, 180 days, without a single school day when all my teachers came to work
    • I’ve had cohorts of students who only had long-term subs for years at a time 
    • I filled an engineering position this year, after years of searching for someone who could do the job 
    • Creating a culture where relationships matter with both students and teachers 
    • Creating a culture where the role of the principal isn’t simply to punish students in support of teachers. 
    • Building a community of care 
      • This one remains a daily battle. Care and inner city high school aren’t words that traditionally go together. But we’re making it happen. 
    • Creating a college-going-culture, and having a plan for after high school culture 
      • This one is a daily battle also. We can get students into college, but getting them to stay in college is a mountain we have not climbed 
    • Creating an environment where we are the eye of the storm in our students’ lives 
      • 100% of our students receive free and reduced lunch. They come to us dealing with all the issues extreme poverty brings to the table that you know, and so many more than you haven’t even imagined. 
    • Bringing making, design, and real-world problem solving into our school. 
      • We now have an x-block program, which brings community partners into our school to work with students. Read about it here
So what’s left to do?
  • Learning. The learning at our school isn’t nearly good enough. It took me six full years to get to the point where all that’s left to do at our school, is the work that I should have been able to start the first day, of my first year. Improving student learning is all that’s left to do. And I’m not sure I know what to do. 
Here’s the reality of where we are: 
  • Between 50%-60% of my incoming 9th grade students read and do math below a 5th grade level when they arrive at our school. I don’t know whether to repeat that statement, put it in bold font, or create an audio recording of me yelling it. Most of those arriving 9th graders are not close to a 5th grade level yet and they have a thousand strategies to use to pretend they know how to do school and to avoid learning. 
  • Imagine barely being able to read as a high school student 
  • Imagine believing you can graduate because you’ve been passed on so many times already, and not understanding that if you can’t pass the graduation tests, you can’t graduate. 
  • Most of my teachers have classes of 25 to 32 students. In those classes are students reading at a second or third grade level, a fourth and fifth grade level, at grade level, and above grade level. It’s an incredible instructional challenge for my team. 
Winter break is coming to an end and my teachers return to school on Monday. Students will return on Tuesday. I think I’m going to try to write about my efforts to grow instructional practices and increase student learning over the rest of this year and into next. My intent is to try and write one post per week. Hopefully, I’m up for the challenge. I’ve spent the last two days diving into our student winter data. And here’s our current reality. Simply put, the students in the middle-those just below or close to grade level are learning. We have tangible evidence to show they are improving. But the students who are extremely far behind, those far below grade level just aren’t learning. And the students who enter our school above grade level-they aren’t learning enough either. My teachers know how to teach to the middle. Differentiating for those so far behind, and those who are ahead is incredibly difficult. It’s not impossible-but it sure is hard. It isn’t that no one is learning. Part of the problem is that students are learning-but not nearly enough. Somehow, I have to figure out how to help teachers grow students more than one year within a year. We have some learning occurring, but a student who enters our school reading at a third grade level (3rd grade!) who improves a year, is reading at a 4th grade level at the end of 9th grade, a 5th grade level at the end of 10th grade, a 6th grade level at the end of 11th grade, and a 7th grade level at the end of the 12th grade. And despite that students’ progress, she isn’t graduating from high school, and she isn’t ready for the world after high school. Additionally, I don’t value teaching to the test. I value design, and making, and real-world problem solving. I’ve spent the last six years bringing these elements into our school in meaningful ways. But it sure is difficult to make problem solving and problem finding the focus when students have such low skills.

I’ve spent my career in schools like mine. But this is the first time I can’t say that all the problems that come with inner city education stand in the way of getting to the learning. I’ve done a good job of addressing everything that gets in the way of learning. Now I’m left with students who don’t know how to learn, teachers with the best intentions, who don’t know how to teach such a huge range of learners, and a lack of learning systems to meet students where they are and take them where they need to go.

It was incredibly daunting to take on the opportunity to lead Design Lab almost seven years ago. It felt like a monumental task ahead when I began. Today, we’re the best we’ve ever been; but we’re not close to being good enough. And as this very-needed vacation comes to an end, the task ahead feels more daunting than it ever has. There aren’t too many people to turn to for advice in this work. There are a million tweets about engagement and assessment and mastery and design, and phenomenal project after phenomenal project that students are doing at schools across the country. And I want to find connections, but the grand canyon exists between what you are tweeting about, and what I am doing.

Does anyone want to chat about how to get high schoolers excited about reading when they can’t find themselves in any books, and they really should be reading books at a second and third grade level? What a challenge.

Does anyone want to talk about teaching students who have been taught only to comply and complete worksheets how to ask why, and what if, and I wonder?

Or about how to teach teachers to differentiate for these enormous range of students in their classes without asking them to create a different lesson plan for each student?

I don’t expect any answers, but I sure would like to connect. I miss the connections in the edu-blogosphere. Sometimes just the dialogue helps.

Until next week....

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Learning by Doing: Teacher Edition

I’ve been power-pointed to death. My personal least-favorite professional development day is to have presenters read powerpoint screens to me as their presentation. Inevitably, the screens are jam packed with words, quotes, and data, and the participants are expected to sit as passive recipients of the eloquent reading of slides by the presenter. Oh, and it’s even better (read worse) when the presenter is kind enough to print out all of his or her slides in a single-sided stapled packet, so we can read ahead on the magic that is to come. I loathe these meetings. I’ve got one on Tuesday. It’s an 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM Principal meeting with one break for lunch. That’s it. The rest of the day I will receive information and I’ll walk away with multiple powerpoint packets of paper that I’m likely to never look at again. Frankly, I’m dreading it. I’ll settle in and do my best to be respectful of the presenters and their message, and the content they are imparting, but it’s awfully difficult to pay attention and stay engaged as the receiver of information for nine hours minus a forty-five minute lunch break.


But I also know that as I write this, one or more of Tuesday’s presenters are currently agonizing over how best to deliver their important information to us. There are 100 principals in our district; new, veteran, struggling, and expert. There are elementary schools, high schools, schools with academic application requirements, programs for English Language Learners, and on and on and on. There’s information we have to know from the district and the state. And there’s no guarantee that my principal colleagues and I will read and understand every email sent to us with this important information. So there are nine hours once a month to deliver the content we need. I get it. And I hate it. My Tuesday presenters aren’t saying it, but their actions scream… THERE JUST ISN’T TIME TO BE ENGAGING. So we’re expected to be adult learners and know the content is important and accept it. So I do and I will on Tuesday. And next month too, and the month after that.


Except for one thing. I have to offer professional development to my staff. I stopped calling it professional development (PD) years ago, and I call it professional learning. I’m not so arrogant to believe I’m developing anyone. Let’s professionally learn together. I shifted my language four years ago, and I’m not sure my staff has noticed yet. So clearly I’m doing an awesome job of creating an adult learning environment. I want to be engaging. But there’s so much we have to get through and so little time to do it. And there’s so much my teachers need to know. Now I don’t make power points, because I hate them, but I can deliver a seriously entertaining lecture filled with the information my teachers need. And of course, they hate it. And they show up this week, and next week, and the week after that. And I watch them laughing and talking with each other about their days and their students and their lives, right up until I start talking, and then the haze descends upon them. All except for the group texts they send back and forth to talk about how lame this PD is again. I’m guessing it’s similar to the group text I’ve got going with my like-minded principal colleagues at our monthly meeting. I hate our PD. I hate that it’s not professional learning, and I hate that THERE JUST ISN’T TIME TO BE ENGAGING. Why can’t my teachers just be adult learners and know the content is important and accept it? Especially because we all know that if I’m not there to ensure they do the work, they simply won’t.


As I write this, I’m reminded of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Just take out Day and switch it to PD, or Professional Learning to make yourself feel better.


The 2015-16 school year at Design Lab Early College High School is about learning to Learn by Doing. My colleagues are doing an amazing job of writing about our work so far. Check out Teaching Humans for great posts about our work to date. This post, written by Meghan Paris, my new 9th grade History teacher, might be the most open and reflective piece I’ve ever read. Because I’m not yet the principal I want to be, it didn’t occur to me until October that if I want all my teachers to have our students learn by doing, then I need to model learning by doing with my teachers. And if I’m going to model learning by doing with my teachers, I can’t worry about the time it takes and the content they have to learn. That’s just not how Learning by Doing works. And if I can’t model that with my staff, how can I ever expect them to ask our students to Learn by Doing?


My new partner in this work, Sean Wheeler, and I have settled on fifteen verbs to guide our practice.
They are a combination of Jim Burke and Marzano’s thoughtful works and we’re figuring out how to apply them to our practice at Design Lab. These verbs are omnipresent in the common core standards, state standards, the PSAT, the SAT, and the ACT. But more importantly than all those; we believe these verbs represent real learning across and within content. If a student understands how to analyze something in our Makerspace, then she can analyze in World History and in Algebra 2. If a student can Imagine in our audio production studio, then they can imagine in Biology and Art. If students can transform pallets into aerobic steps, (as our 9th grade has already done), then what can transformation look like in English and Geometry? We believe the application of these fifteen verbs is learning. If students understand the verbs in action, and are aware of them across their classes and how they are embedded in our projects, then they are actually learning. These verbs also can anchor the work for our teachers. Currently I hear teachers say, “I teach Biology, not Reading. What do I do with a student with low reading skills in my Biology class?” With our verbs as the anchor, our teachers can learn to say, “We all teach students to Evaluate. How does that look different or the same from your class to mine?” When teachers are applying these verbs to student projects that are about real problems to be solved, then our students will really be learning.


But if I’m going to get my team there, they have to practice the verbs too. And we can’t just talk about it. I can’t just create a different power point slide for each verb. My teachers have to learn by doing. So I’m shifting our professional development. We started this a few weeks ago, in our time after school, but Election Day was the first opportunity to put my new thinking into practice in an “Let’s totally do this differently” kind of way. There was no school for students, but teachers had a required day of learning. Guess what? It was six and half hours, minus forty minutes for lunch that I get to control. Not quite my nine hour marathon, but still plenty of time for boring slides and nasty texts. But I committed to Learning by Doing. I committed to giving up any traditional structure in the day and I committed to my teachers having the opportunity to apply our verbs in their practice.


I had one goal for the day, with two avenues to achieve it. The goal: Give teachers the time, space, and opportunity to apply our fifteen verbs in their own learning and practice. We had two pathways to do so; the first a morning activity applying our verbs to our thinking about college readiness and how we get low-skilled inner city kids to be college ready. The second, the rest of the day in our Makerspace, designing and making projects for teachers. What followed was the most beautiful day of teacher engagement, participation and learning that I have ever been a part of since becoming a principal.


I can’t do justice to all the learning that occurred. But here are some pictures and videos to tell some of the story. We are fortunate to be partnering with Pete Debelak, the owner of Soulcraft Woodshop. His guidance and knowledge helped my teachers in their making throughout the day. I watched one group of teachers begin to build screens to convert recycled paper into usable paper for art class. Two other groups imagined and began building stands for laptops and projectors.
I watched my guidance counselor, who had never set foot in our Makerspace learn how to do incredibly complex joinery. Most importantly, I watched teachers collaborate, listen to each other, and support and congratulate each other.
Together, they analyzed, argued with purpose, compared and contrasted options, described their intended outcomes, showed determination when faced with adversity, evaluated decisions and errors, and interpreted data. They began the process of transforming wood, and organized materials. They wondered, discussed, laughed and got covered in sawdust. They had ideas for common tools to use to articulate our verbs coherently to all students in all classrooms. And they had fun. They were engaged.

And they were learning. And did I mention they had fun? And we blinked, and the day was over. There wasn’t time to text because their hands were filled with tools. There wasn’t time to zone out because who wants to lose a finger to the scroll saw?


At the end of the day, teachers took a few minutes to reflect in an open-ended google form I created. And it’s all there-the foundation for Learning By Doing. They reflected about how fun the day was, how scared they were to use the tools, how much they learned together. Are they ready to transfer one day to their own practice with our students? No way. And to expect them to do so right now would be unrealistic and absurd. But they clearly showed me the only pathway to engaging students in this manner across our school, is to consistently engage teachers in this manner at every opportunity. At the end of the day, I realized other than kicking off each activity, I had hardly said a word. And the professional learning, (not development) was off the charts. All that was missing was me working on a project of my choosing, applying the verbs and learning with and next to my teachers.


On Tuesday, while I try my best to receive the content from the presenters, I’ll be planning Learning by Doing sessions for our staff. What does applying our verbs as staff look like long term? I’m also trying to get the nerve up to make a coffee table. It terrifies me, but I have to do this work with my teachers. Otherwise I’m just the guy who tells everyone else to learn by doing.

There isn’t time to waste in our school. Our students are on average three years behind in all academic content. But if talking faster and giving them more content to memorize were going to work, it would have already. Design Lab Early College High School is becoming a school where students learn by doing. High School doesn’t have to be preparation for real life, it is real life. At our school, student learning begins with an actual problem to solve, and ends with making a difference to a real audience. We’ve begun this in the 9th grade. And it’s a struggle. But it’s working. To build this program school-wide, teachers must have the opportunity to actually learn and do this work themselves. And so, we continue in our makerspace, with our teachers learning by doing. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Today I Intended to be an Instructional Leader


Today I intended to be an instructional leader. I knew which classrooms I planned to visit, and what kind of feedback I wanted to give my teachers. I was ready to be immersed in my students’ classroom experiences.

But first, I had a meeting with a student and his father, upon the students’ return from school after suspension. This particular student is new to my school. He’s only been with us for two months. He has one foot in bounds, and another squarely placed out of bounds. He runs the risk of being arrested for some of his actions. He’s also on the verge of repeating the 9th grade for the third time. Usually, I have to be pretty tough in meetings like this. But his very gruff and stern father, said in the softest voice you can imagine… “Son, I’ve been in jail. It will be with me for the rest of my life, at every job interview, and every talk with a boss. Don’t do what I did. You can be better than that. Don’t go down the same road I did.” There wasn’t much for me to add after that.

Then I got yelled at by an extremely angry student. Usually, I can defuse anger, especially when it’s not really about me, pretty quickly and easily. But it went wrong with this student almost immediately. And I felt myself getting annoyed, which is absolutely the kiss of death. If I lose it, no matter the circumstances, then I’m not the leader my teachers and students need me to be. So I excused myself to call her mother to ask for help, because somehow, I hadn’t handled the situation correctly. Her mom saved the day for both of us.

Then I intended to be an instructional leader, but first I had to make sure the conditions for learning were set. Friday was professional learning for teachers. Monday there wasn’t school for the holiday, and Tuesday was a snow day. After this many days off without our routine, both students and teachers need to be on track. The hidden contract between teachers and students in inner city schools says “You don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you.” So, I had to visit every classroom and help teachers check uniforms, have students take out headphones, turn off their music, and get purposefully prepared for learning to occur. As a staff, we’re learning that the role of the principal is to support teacher efforts to set conditions for learning, and not to handle any and every issue, concern, or problem, unconditionally.

At that point I was totally ready to be an instructional leader, but a former student came to visit with her three month old son. This seventeen year old mom to be left our school in October because she desperately needed a change of scenery. She visited last week to introduce us to her son, so her return today was out of the ordinary and I knew something was up. It became clear fairly quickly, that she just needed help, and some support, and a whole lot of care. I put aside the opportunity to go be an instructional leader, and put on my Dad hat. I helped her to hold her son more safely, giving her pointers on where to put her hands and how to how to hold his head. I taught her how to strap him into his car seat because she didn’t know the straps could be loosened and tightened. I saw that her car seat and her stroller weren’t made by the same company, so his infant car seat was precariously resting on the top of the stroller. I explained to her the way the car seat and stroller are intended to work together. I called my wife, some friends, and local organizations to try to find a free matching set, so her son can be safe. We talked through how the car seat is latched into the car and it was clear immediately that it hasn’t been done correctly. I told her how to do it, but I fully expect she’ll be back so I can install it correctly.

I stopped counting how many times this former student has cursed at me. I lost count of the number of times I’ve physically held her back from fighting someone, and the number of times she told me no one could ever help her life to be better. And, I tell myself I’ve moved on from my own sadness the day she told me she wanted to have a baby because she’d never known what it felt like to be loved by anyone. She’s not my student anymore, but that doesn’t mean I should have gone off to be an instructional leader.

I thought for sure I’d get to be an instructional leader after she left. But, I had to meet with one of my best students’ who is throwing away an amazing internship opportunity. He’s showing up late, or not showing up at all. This internship is a ticket to college. The reference letter he’d get would help him to get the scholarship dollars he needs. I asked, “Have you considered how getting fired from this internship will hurt your chances to get into a better college?” He answered, “To be honest Mr. Juli, I hadn’t given it any thought at all.” And I remembered that students who don’t know anything about college, who can’t see how today has anything to do with tomorrow, wouldn’t necessarily make the connection between internship and the future. I made the faulty assumption that once he had this great opportunity, he’d know what to do with it. No way. Internships and a connection to a more positive future...something else we have to figure out how to purposefully teach.

Instructional leadership time. But one of my teachers waved me down on my way to the classrooms. She’d gone to a students’ house to check on him. We hadn’t heard from him or seen him in weeks. His mother was no longer returning our calls. My teacher had brought him to school to see me. Head down, sweatshirt over his head and face. No eye contact, and speaking barely above a whisper.
“Why aren’t you coming to school?”
“Don’t know.”
“What are you doing when you’re not in school?”
“Sitting on the couch.”
“What’s your mom doing?”
“Sitting on the couch.”
“When was the last time you ate?”
“Yesterday.”
“Washed your clothing?”
“Don’t know.”
“Showered?”
“Today.” But I could see that wasn’t true.

We talked for awhile. I told him that coming to school is vital. I don’t care about grades or assignments. I just want him here to know he’s safe and okay. I made him promise me he’ll be back tomorrow. Then school ended. And I spent part of my afternoon on the phone with Child and Family Services making a report.

After a glass of wine, hugs from my own children, a talk with my wife about her efforts to find a better stroller/car seat combo and then this blog post, I have to let today go. Tomorrow is a new day. A school like mine only moves forward when instructional practices change and improve. It's easy to feel like today was a successful day because I helped children. But that's one of the traps of inner city schools. Helping individual students isn't the same as improving the school and growing a good school. One day like today can turn into two, three, a week, and a month of days like today. In a school like mine, that's unacceptable because our students can't afford for us to continue on our current path.Tomorrow is a new day. And I intend to be an instructional leader.



Sunday, February 2, 2014

Grit: Context Matters

Have you ever seen the children’s book Zoom by Istvan Banyai? The book is only images, beginning with what is essentially an ant’s eye view, and slowly, page by page, panning out to become a five mile high view, all of the same place. Each page, our perspective changes, given the details of the image we can now see. The book reminds me that perspective and context matter. They especially matter in the eclectic and wonderful educational-blogosphere where so many thinkers contribute a myriad of perspectives and contexts to the conversation.

When I posted my thinking around the Tough/Socol et. al Grit/Slack Debate, (we should have t-shirts made by the way; it’s very catchy), I was attempting to offer my perspective as an inner city principal, working with the very population that the discussion focused upon. After I posted, there were several really interesting outcomes.

First, there was the last line of my post. “Are you in?” Now, what I intended and what happened were two totally different outcomes. I was really trying to say, are you in on action in general over just using words? Not, are you in on my school right now? I was so surprised to see that readers thought I meant are you in on my school. Thanks so much to Jill, Bo, Laura, and Grant, who in one way or another said they were in on me, and my school. It’s awfully kind, and I so appreciate the heartfelt “inness” you offered.

Chris Thines, upon reading my post, felt that I was devaluing anyone who wanted to discuss what can, should, or ought to be done about poverty. For others of you who perceived my post in that way, that certainly wasn’t the spirit in which it was intended. But here’s where my context and my perspective begin to come into the picture. An overarching theme in this ongoing discussion has been about poverty; poverty through the lens of socio-economic status, race, and educational potential, expectations, and outcomes, have all been part of the discussion. And I was struck when Chris compared my shutting down the conversation to teachers who shut their doors to their classrooms because the discussion doesn’t relate to what they will teach on Tuesday. This was a particular gut shot, because teachers actually shut their doors in the hopes that I’ll go away. So it got me to reflect on my own progression of my thinking. You see, I fell in love with the Philosophy of Education, long before I decided to teach. Nell Noddings', The Challenge to Care In School, Paulo Freire’s, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and of course Dewey’s Experience and Education remain guiding references on my bookshelf in my current office. I was an undergraduate Philosophy major at Syracuse, and I loved grappling with ideas in general. 

But, at some point in these last seventeen years in schools, poverty stopped being an entity, an idea, a status or a condition. Instead, at some point without my even realizing it, Poverty started being students’ faces and names. Poverty is now grandmothers that sit in my office and crying and asking for help. It’s the coffin I saw at my murdered student’s funeral, and the baby’s cries at namings and events I’ve attended after my students’ have babies of their own. It’s this context, this perspective these names, faces, and events that have me falling squarely in the context of action oriented and not words oriented. It isn’t that I want to dismiss the dialogue, discussion, or thinking aloud. It’s simply that from my perspective, in my context, I want to take action now (Right Now!) on behalf of my students. I love words and ideas. Always have, always will. But I also have shame, frustration, and anger about graduating students who aren’t ready for the world. And my desire to make change as quickly as possible guides my current thinking about actions over words.

It’s so interesting to me how a word or an idea can be so different depending on the context. When I used the phrase “pushing my staff” on twitter, in the context of my desire to move towards Design Thinking, Dr. Lee-Anne Gray equated “pushing teachers” with teacher abuse.

Here’s an example of how vital “pushing teachers” on behalf of students is at my school. It has taken me two full years to ensure that teachers having unlocked doors to classrooms, is part of what we do. Let me try to be clearer still. When I arrived at Design Lab three years ago, and through the start of this year, every time a student tried to enter his or her classroom, they found every single door locked. So last years’ graduates spent all four years of high school, never having the opportunity to walk into a classroom without a teacher explicitly opening the door and inviting the student in.

Please take just two minutes after reading this to imagine the implications for learning, culture, relationships and every other key part of a school when every classroom door is locked to students all the time. So I pushed. And I pushed, and I pushed. And here we are in year three, and doors are unlocked for all but two teachers all the time. But we fall into bad habits still. When teachers are annoyed with students and annoyed with me, doors are still sometimes locked. That’s one example. I could offer a thousand. Should I have pushed? Or should I have waited for teacher readiness around unlocking doors? When I arrived in Cleveland, my teachers were very clear. “This [locking doors] is what we do here.” Context and perception both matter.

Control is another word that is interpreted in a variety of ways. I said in my post, “I want to focus only on what we have control over.” Chris Thinnes and others interpreted control, I think, as a synonym for power. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead my version of control is about focusing on the teaching and learning that occurs in our four walls during the school day. Too many of my students come to school hungry and angry, and dirty and cold. There are so many opportunities to use those circumstances as reasons why those students cannot learn. We are in charge of the hours the students are in our care. What can we do right and better for and with them? To them happens also, unfortunately, but it isn’t the intent.

Here’s another place where context and perspective matter. In this great ongoing discussion about what we do about poverty, here’s my contribution: I’m purposefully trying to turn around an inner city public high school. I think if I wanted to that I have the skill set to go start a Charter School. But I want to be part of a system of schools. I want to prove that we can grow a successful inner city high school as part of a district of schools and make it replicable. I want our school to be a school that any of us would send our children to, while being part of a system of schools. If we can do that, we’re showing that “these” students, my students, our students, can be successful despite their circumstances. That’s how I address poverty; the institution. Or at least that’s how I’m trying to address it. I’m not even close to being successful yet.

But there’s a gigantic catch to what I’m trying to do. And it’s vital to understanding it as you try and understand the context in which I write and make decisions. None of my teachers; not one, has ever taught in a school that works. None of my students’ parents have ever attended a school that works, and none of my students have ever attended a school that works. So as I push us towards innovation, towards learning outside our four walls, towards relevancy in learning, towards design thinking and making, towards authenticity; I’m doing it without any common ground, save one frustrating commonality. My teachers, students, and parents all connect around our state exam. Everyone gets that they need it the state test to graduate. That’s it-no other common ground exists. How I lead us towards what school can be and should be without anyone having ever seen a working school before is the hardest, scariest, most terrifying part of my daily work. Context and perspective absolutely matter.

Anyone reading this post is always welcome to come visit our school. Ask my students what they think about grit and their future, and you’ll hear what I hear every day. My students who are interested in the law say they want to be paralegals. My students who are interested in medicine, offer you “radiology technician.” My students inevitably pick jobs that don’t require a college education, because they can’t imagine themselves getting a college education. Too often, my students can only imagine themselves working within service industry at McDonalds. How would you talk about grit in that context? How would you address slack given that perspective? Some days I think I know how. Others, significantly less so.

The conditions that exist among my teachers, parents and students reminds me of Plato’s Myth of the Caves. Do you know it? In it, these men are only able to look forward and all they can see are the shadows of men, women, children, and animals, cast from a fire. One person escapes, and sees the world as it actually is, and when he returns to the cave to tell his colleagues what the world is really like, they think he’s insane.

My teachers, parents, and students only see the shadows. And everything they know and have experienced tells them the way we “do” school is not only the right way, but the only way. Oh, by the way, I’m the insane guy, saying things can be different in this particular allegory.

So what does the myth of the caves have to do with Grit? In my mind, it means there’s so much work we have to do before we can even get to the school-tough I discussed in my last post. Asking my students what they want. Asking my students’ parents what they want, and asking my teachers what they want means we have to learn to see more than shadows first.

I didn’t write about it in my first post, but I should have. In 1998, Ron Suskind, a writer for the Wall Street Journal gave a name to the foundational work we have to do to even get into the conversation about Grit. He discussed a belief and a faith in having something better despite the words of those around us that “we can’t” or “we won’t” or “why bother” as a “hope in the unseen. (Suskind, 1998)” In his book, A Hope in the Unseen, Suskind retells the true story of a young man’s journey from the inner city to Brown University. Cedric, the main character defined the unseen as “a place, a place I couldn’t see yet, up ahead… an imagined place that I’ll get to someday (Suskind, 1998, pg. 330).”

I think about that hope in the unseen regularly. At my school, in our context, from my perspective, our work begins with making the unseen visible. I ask students regularly, “What do you want?” “What’s your plan?” “What happens next?” We need to name the unseen, and then develop the necessary grit to make it happen.

I love the ongoing discussion about grit and slack. While I can’t agree with any of Ira Socol's beliefs about Paul Tough, I loved his Grit Part 4 post and I highly recommend you read it. Just know that while I agree with virtually everything he said, we’re a long way from implementing any of it at my school. And when I ask for ideas on twitter or in this blog related to how you would start, I really mean it. There isn’t a clear roadmap for the work we’re doing at our school. And sometimes I feel just as confused as my teachers must feel when I ask them to “do school” differently.

Context and perspective really matter. There’s so much that happens at our school that matters towards making teaching and learning better. There are so many posts I either don’t write or am nervous to write. As we try and do school better, does context matter? Twice this year, I’ve had to sneak into my house, so my children didn’t see that I had other people’s blood all over me. I think that matters. I think that speaks to the learning environment we have, and the one we need to create.

Does it matter that in my twenty minute drive home from work, I go from inner city Cleveland to beautiful Shaker Heights? And that plenty of days it takes me much longer than twenty minutes to decompress and let go of what I’ve seen and done at school. I think it matters.

I’m definitely focused on action over words. I hope this post helps you to see the why of that purposeful decision. I also hope that you will understand that when I ask for suggestions, advice or starting steps, the question isn’t rhetorical. I’m in the weeds far more often than I’m not. I’m taking my grit, both school and life, along with the slack I’ve gotten over the years, and heading back to my own personal battleground tomorrow. School as battleground… what a terrible analogy. But context matters...

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Grit or Slack? Are We Asking the Right Questions?


I want to positively contribute to this Grit/Slack debate. I’ve started and stopped this post at least four times since Grant Lichtman asked me to contribute to the discussion on Sunday. Here’s where we are as I see it:


Paul Tough has said that students lack a set of non-cognitive skills, and the current term to define this subset of skills is grit. Josie Holford discussed her frustration with Grit in terms of socio-economic class. Vicki Davis talked about Grit as being how we respond to the tough situations in our lives. Ira Socol offered a new term, “Slack” to frame what kids in poverty lack that middle class and upper class students have in abundance because, he pointed out, kids in poverty are some of the grittiest around.

I agree with all of it and I agree with none of it. Let me try to explain.

At my inner city school, I have to remind my staff all the time that we can only focus on what we can control. We can’t control what happens to our students beyond the time they are with us. We can’t control that there isn’t electricity at home. We can’t always control when students have beds. We can’t control or solve a lack of clothing. We can’t control or be there when our high school students are acting as the parent, because the parent is working multiple minimum wage jobs. We can't control it when parents are unsupportive.

As hard as it is to admit it and face it. We aren’t in the business of solving poverty. I don’t wake up every day to head to my job as a high school principal to fix poverty. I’m in the business of teaching and learning. I’m in the business of kids. I’m in the business of offering choices and opportunity to students who need a clearer or different path.

Ira’s absolutely right when he frames slack as something that our kids are missing. I had more slack than I knew what to do with and it saved me time and time again. My kids have zero. If there’s such a thing as negative slack, then that’s what they’ve got. But I can’t spend more time than it took to write those sentences focusing on the slack my students don’t have. We don’t have any tools or opportunity to give them slack. In 2014, in inner city Cleveland, where is the slack coming from? It isn’t coming from anywhere. So Ira is right, but it doesn’t move us forward and it isn’t something we have control over.

The same is true with Josie’s points. In my white, middle class sensibility, I agree with every word she wrote. But none of it helps me at school tomorrow. Just because Josie’s frustration is true for her and for me; she and I are more alike than my students and I are, doesn’t make it true, useful or valuable for my students day to day.

I like that Vicki talked about grit in the context of dealing with what’s tough in our lives. That definition is absolutely true for me. But it’s only a small piece of the definition of grit for my students. When I was in high school, the most adversity I faced was being the shortest kid in class and always managing to find myself in the friend zone with any girl I liked. It felt brutal at the time, but let’s be honest…I wasn’t redefining what it is to face adversity and develop grit.

For my students, they have a different idea of what tough is in their lives. We haven’t had school for four days in a row because of extreme cold. Last week, while we were in school, it was also terribly cold, just not dangerous enough to close school. In the last week, I know students who have chosen to lend their coats to younger siblings and cousins, so another could be warm. I have plenty of students without coats at all, and most are choosing to come to school every day we’re in session. I know students who choose to let someone else in their family eat today. They will see how hungry they are tomorrow and see if they need to eat then. I know students who don't have beds, or who offer their bed to someone else in the apartment. I know students who travel two hours to come to school; a place where they don’t feel valued, respected, cared for, and accepted. I know students who leave work all night, and then come to school in the morning… and then all the money they earn goes to the rent or to keep the lights on. My students know more about being tough as teenagers than many people learn in a lifetime.

But I want to make a key addition to Vicki’s definition. Vicki talked about tough. I want to posit that there’s a difference between life-tough and school-tough. When Ira talked about the grittiness of kids in poverty, I think he’s referring to life-tough. My students have life-tough down. They know how to handle life-tough. Most don’t know anything other than life-tough. What they don’t know how to deal with is school-tough.

Ira talked about traditional school success in the context of compliance. I’m not sure I agree with that. To be fair, inner city educators have turned compliance into an art form. And we’re fairly focused on it at our school as well. But if grit has school-tough in the definition, I can point to some specific indicators, aspects or skills that my students do lack. For me, I don’t use grit or slack. I call them Habits of Mind. But the words don’t matter. Essentially, these are the skills and tools we need to do school well. And let me say, in no uncertain terms, that my students and students in poverty across the country do school terribly.

For example, I have plenty of students who are below grade level. But I have plenty of students who are at or above grade level too. Regardless of how they read, write, or do math, most of my students are currently failing. And yet they are the toughest kids I know. If grit is just being tough, and persevering, then why are my kids struggling academically so much? Here’s what I think. The toughness my kids exhibit in life does not transfer to school. Academic perseverance, academic stick-to-it-ivness, academic courage, academic behaviors, academic skills, academic dispositions, do not transfer just because a student is “gritty” outside of school.

My students with one shirt, no food, who travel two hours to get to school, who give up at nothing in life outside of school, give up all the time, a thousand times a day, in academic settings. I don’t really know Ira, but I think I can hear him say at this point, that this is what white middle class conformity expects of them and it isn’t right. To that I say, of course it isn’t right. But it’s the world. It also isn’t right that my students are in poverty to begin with. But they are; so we deal with it. I can only address what we have control over. To get out of poverty, my students need to be successful in school. I’ve built a career believing that education is the ticket out. To be successful in college and careers, my students need school-tough. And they just don’t have it. What’s right has very little to do with what is.

There’s plenty more to say, but I want to get this posted so I can get into the conversation.
And that brings me to an important point I want to make. If this grit/slack conversation is about what we do to help kids, then I’m in until the end. If this is really a conversation about what ought to be different in the world, then I’m out after this post. I want to talk about what we have control over. Poverty is bad. Okay, but it ain’t changing anytime soon. And I have to go work with kids tomorrow, who aren’t expecting poverty to go away anytime soon. We still need to figure out how to help them be successful; poverty or not.

Here’s an important piece: I haven’t figured out how to teach my students school-tough. I don’t know how to teach them all academic-courage and academic-perseverance. I know how to do it with individual kids. In that arena, I can claim success. But I’m the principal of a school now, not a classroom teacher. I haven’t figured out how to teach an entire school how to do school well. And I certainly haven’t figured out how to help my teachers teach my students how to do school well. Is that a conversation you want to have? Can we shift away from whether or not this is a middle class expectation, or a conversation about compliance to one of what we do to help students like mine develop the toolbox to help themselves? That’s what I want to talk about. Do you want to talk about word choice or actions? My students, and all those like them, don’t need a debate about word choice. They need actions. Are you in?