Monday, February 19, 2018

Next Steps

Dear Reader,

Thanks in advance for reading this post. Here’s some context for your consideration. In writing this piece, I’m not looking for answers or solutions from you. I’ve been a teacher or administrator in inner city schools for twenty plus years, and I often don’t know what to do. I’m not expecting you to have answers to my questions, my wondering or my musings. Although if you do, I’m happy to hear them-I could use all the help I can get. My purpose for writing this post, and all future posts is simply to bring awareness to the edu-blogosphere that schools like ours exist, and our students have names, and stories, and hopes, and dreams. I love reading about so many amazing educators, doing phenomenal work with outrageously creative and wonderful students, at tremendous schools. AND, I want you to know about our school too. Most principals and teachers in inner city schools aren’t on twitter, but there are so many schools like mine in cities across America, serving thousands of students in underrepresented communities. The purpose of this post is simply to say we are here, and we are dealing with tough problems, without any clear solutions. And if you think about these stories for even a minute beyond reading the post, or if you share it, or tell someone about it, then my students, my teachers, and our community isn’t invisible in that moment. And I can’t ask for more than that. Thank you for reading.


Dear Team,

Welcome back! I hope you all had a relaxing, and well-deserved long weekend. February is always hard for me to maintain my focus on all the work that still needs to be done. But the reality is, there remains a tremendous amount of work to do, and not nearly enough time to get it all done. Usually I use this space to remind you about our countdown to the Ohio State Tests (32 days), and how our focus must be on teaching and learning and teaching bell to bell. This week, I’d like to draw your attention elsewhere.

For the most part, our school has returned to normal after the tragedy of losing someone many of us cared about. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to say it. Our school has returned to the predictability of our routine. I have not. I haven’t grieved; not really. I’ve cried a little, a couple of times-most recently when watching the heartbroken mother in Florida cry out in anguish and anger, about our leaders’ inability to take any steps forward around gun laws. But I haven’t really taken the time, or had the opportunity to just be sad. To be honest, I think the opportunity has passed me by. I think my sadness is slowly turning into anger-not unmanageable, crazy anger. But the slow burn kind of anger that if channeled correctly, turns into action.

The normalcy of our school is actually an implicit agreement that not-good-enough-school is in fact good enough. And it isn’t. It just isn’t. I was so pleased that students who no longer attend our school wanted to come back to us to grieve last week, because they know we are a place of care. And I was able to get them one counseling session. And while one is better than none, it’s not close to being enough. Some of our current students have had two counseling sessions. A handful have had three. And it’s still not enough. And yet we must move forward. The state tests are coming, and that’s where our focus has to be, instead of being on the reality of so many of our students dealing daily with trauma that has occurred in their lives. And I’m angry and more than a little sad that the expectation is that our focus ought to be on moving forward, instead of dealing with traumatized teens. But I also understand the reality-the tests are coming, and there isn't any such thing as passing or being excused from the exam due to trauma.

Some of you know, I attended a principal meeting last week. Some of the meetings I have to attend are terrible, but this one wasn’t. The focus: How do we know that students are actually learning what our teachers intend for them to learn? And it’s the right topic. Our students have incredible gaps in their knowledge. There’s so much they don’t know. They don’t read well. They don’t always think, and problem solve well. They write so poorly. And the first required graduation state test is 32 days away. As I’ve said to many of you, three weeks ago, I was working with our math department. And we were looking at a math standard about graphing functions that applied to both Algebra and Geometry. We used the Achieve The Core website to map the standard backwards, all the way to first grade. It wasn’t until we got to second grade that we were absolutely sure that 100% of our students could meet that standard. There are so many gaps, and misunderstandings and topics students simply haven’t learned along the way. And we have to address them all. So discussing how we know whether or not students are learning is a right topic for a meeting. One of my colleagues-a great principal-presented. She talked about the new system she and her teachers have begun to implement to check for student understanding. And it can work. And it might already be working at her school. I listened to the presentation, and while I understood the rightness of it, it also made me terribly sad.

Our students know so little, so we want to break everything down into the smallest possible parts to teach them. But in breaking it down, we take away what it actually is. When we learn to drive a car, we have to know all the different parts, or at least the parts we see and touch as the driver. But we would never, ever learn to drive a car by just practicing pressing the gas pedal. And then just practicing to use the brake. And never, ever getting to put it all together on the road. As a principal of a school full of students with low skills, I understand the power of breaking topics down into manageable parts. But as a dad, I would be so unhappy and angry if my child’s school said they were breaking everything down into small parts to assess to ensure students are learning for the test instead of doing cool projects to learn. We don’t talk about it much-but how come my own children get to plant gardens, and do service projects using pottery, and do so many other cool learning activities, while the black and brown kids in the inner city have to break down their learning into the smallest pieces to make sure they pass the state tests and many never get to do most of those cool projects?

We have to get our kids to pass the tests. And what’s the cost of only getting our kids to pass the tests? If they don’t pass, they are doomed to a life of poverty, without any chance of any job they would ever willingly choose to have. And if they do pass, and they haven’t learned about self-efficacy, and action, and power, and voice, and engagement and so much more, then what can they do with the high school diploma they have earned for passing the tests? It’s an impossible dilemma, without any easy solutions.

It's easy to get lost in the details of the tests. It’s easy to get lost in the standards and the verbs, and the tools and the strategies. But the world is moving rapidly around us, and the truth is-just passing the Ohio State Tests isn't enough to be ready for the world our students will enter. And wow, it sure is a tough world right now. #MeToo, #Blacklivesmatter, school shootings and so much more to wrap our minds around.

We are under such incredible pressure to get our kids to be proficient as measured by the state test. Value add, Performance Index, School Report Cards, and Graduation Rates all depend on our students' passing the test. And that's before we get to the reality that for our students', their diplomas, and for some, their lives are on the line.

But there has to be more to school in general, and our school specifically, than just preparing students for tests. I don't want to just say we want students to be thinkers, problem solvers, and makers. I believe in the power of actually teaching students to apply the skills of thinking, problem solving, and making-not in class, but in their community. I'm reading and watching teenagers with voice and agency speak truth to power from a Florida high school, aiming their anger and desire for action at Washington DC, and I want to discuss with all of you, how we teach our students to have their own voices be heard. How do we teach our students to use words as weapons instead of weapons as weapons? How do we teach them that words are power and action is strength? There won't be anything on the state exams about these topics, but aren't these topics at least equally important if not more so than what will actually be on the tests?

We sat together last week as a staff and talked about whether or not there is a specific policy governing what you should do with your students in your classroom if an active shooter tries to get into the room. I hate that we had to take time to hold that conversation. But we did. And we should have. But let's also take the time to discuss whatever the opposite of that conversation ought to be. If we, the voting populace, and our elected officials are unwilling to have meaningful conversations to ensure our safety in school, then how do we empower our students to make the changes we are unwilling to make? Wouldn't that be a worthwhile conversation? And if students can actually make meaningful changes, doesn't that mean they could also pass the state tests?

It's Black History Month and our students ought to know so much more about their own heritage. Here’s a link to young adult author, Jason Reynolds' twitter page. He has shared one black woman's story each day this month, using the hashtag #OfCourseABlackWomanDid. I'm embarrassed to say that each and every day this month, the woman and her accomplishments have been entirely new learning for me. And I think it's fair to say, that if it's new learning for me, it would be new learning for virtually all our students. None of these people will be covered on the state tests, and all are worth our students knowing and us knowing, and engaging in meaningful time in class around their accomplishments. The pressure of the tests get in the way of this incredibly important learning. Our students already cannot find themselves in the courses we teach. These short stories of women of courage, strength and achievement do more to grow our students’ capacities as empowered learners than anything we do to prepare them for the state exams.

We will talk this week about how we know if students have learned what we've intended them to learn. But we should also talk about how we teach students with huge gaps in their knowledge, and massive holes in their understanding where context ought to be, how to start with a problem and end with an audience. The tennis example I've been using for months has value. You know the one-the whole staff is playing in a tennis tournament at the end of the year. Some of us have played before, others haven’t at all, and we have every skill level in between. But we’re all playing in the tournament at the end of the year. And we’re all practicing together, on the same court, at the same time. And I have to teach all of you. There are obvious parallels to our classrooms with some students who are at or above grade level, but also students who are far, far below grade level, with another large group in between. And we have to get them all to proficiency, even though some students absolutely won’t get there this year. Just like some of you wouldn’t win the tennis tournament this year-but you could in the future. If we were actually playing tennis after school as a staff, and I only ever let you hit a forehand, or hold the ball, or only practice your serve, and we never, ever, get to actually play tennis-it means I'm doing it wrong. If we break things down into such small parts, that our students can never see the whole, and never understand how the part fits with their world, even though the whole won't be on the test, then it means we're doing it wrong.

Teaching and leading in the inner city is as close to impossible as there could possibly be. The world is changing and school is not. The world is happening, at a million miles per hour, and our kids don't know it. We have to figure out how to help our students have choices and opportunities in the world, AND we have to get them the skills and knowledge to pass the graduation tests. And it's so difficult.

I believe in this teams' ability to both get our students to proficient and connect our students with the world. We err on the side of focusing on tests because of the pressures we are under. We do need to get our students to pass seven state exams. And we need to get them ready for the world. These often feel like competing interests-at least to me. Are they always competing? Can we get students to proficiency and help them to formulate solid opinions as to whether or not they do or don’t want to be a part of a national student walk out around gun control? Or get them to proficiency and help our students to know if they want to take their own actions about their own set of experiences as youth in the inner city? I don't know. But I think if anyone can, it's you. And I sure would like to talk about it.

The state tests are coming. And the world is happening. And our students must be aware of both. I'm here to support you as best I can. Just ask. Let's talk about it together.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

No Words

Dear Reader,

Thanks in advance for reading this post. Here’s some context for your consideration. In writing this piece, I’m not looking for answers or solutions from you. I’ve been a teacher or administrator in inner city schools for twenty plus years, and I often don’t know what to do. I’m not expecting you to have answers to my questions, my wondering or my musings. Although if you do, I’m happy to hear them-I could use all the help I can get. My purpose for writing this post, and all future posts is simply to bring awareness to the edu-blogosphere that schools like ours exist, and our students have names, and stories, and hopes, and dreams. I love reading about so many amazing educators, doing phenomenal work with outrageously creative and wonderful students, at tremendous schools. AND, I want you to know about our school too. Most principals and teachers in inner city schools aren’t on twitter, but there are so many schools like mine in cities across America, serving thousands of students in underrepresented communities. The purpose of this post is simply to say we are here, and we are dealing with tough problems, without any clear solutions. And if you think about these stories for even a minute beyond reading the post, or if you share it, or tell someone about it, then my students, my teachers, and our community isn’t invisible in that moment. And I can’t ask for more than that. Thank you for reading.

A great principal is an instructional leader first, second and third. We need to ensure that teaching and learning is the best it can possibly be for our students. We need to inspire innovation and creativity in our teachers. We need to know how to help struggling learning, and how to engage accelerated learners. We’re measured by our state report card grades, our graduation rates, the numbers of students who get into college, proficiency rates on state exams, and the number of students who earn college credit on Advanced Placement tests. There’s more of course; but you get the idea. Maintaining and growing excellent student learning is the mark of a good principal, and a good school.

By any measure that matters in schools, I failed in my role as a principal this week. While I certainly intended to be an instructional leader, my wants and plans fell by the wayside early in the week. I can’t possibly tell the whole story-first it’s too painful, and I can’t tell this story chronologically-there’s just too much. I also don’t know what words to use to describe the emotion of the week. This is my sixth week in a row of writing about our school. To be honest, had I any idea this week would occur, I never would have started writing again. This is one of those times I’m scared I can’t convey what really happens, and what really matters in this story. But I’ll give it my best shot. Deep breath and here we go...

My student was murdered on Tuesday. That’s officially the worst sentence I’ve ever written. But it doesn’t come close to telling the full story.

A young man was murdered on Tuesday. That’s not right either.

A child was murdered on Tuesday. No.

My child, my school-son, my student was murdered on Tuesday. Getting there.

My child, my school-son, my student was shot in the head on Tuesday. He is brain dead, and essentially dead, but his body doesn’t know it yet. Almost.

My child, my school-son, my student was shot in the head on Tuesday. He is brain dead, and essentially dead, but his body doesn’t know it yet. And neither does his family. They have not yet come to grips with the reality that their child, grandson, nephew, cousin is gone, and all that is left are machines breathing for him. There it is. That’s what I meant to say. But there’s so much more.

Students starting seeing Instagram posts soon after school ended. I had left school because I was supposed to be going to Dayton, Ohio for a day of learning with School Retool. When I heard that A (I’m not using his full name out of respect for his family as they come to grips with their new reality) had been shot, I headed for the hospital. I made calls the whole way. I called my boss, the district crisis management team to set up grief counselors for my school on Wednesday, one staff member who loves A as much as me, my Campus Coordinator to arrange meeting at the hospital and my wife. I started crying as soon as I called my wife. “I’m not going to be able to handle this one.” I said through the tears. “This one is too much.”

I arrived at the Trauma Intensive Care Unit at the hospital, where I was met by my police officer friend. We’ve both spent an inordinate amount of time, in our own ways, trying to keep A alive. We waited together for my Campus Coordinator, the most caring person at our school. She doesn’t have any children of her own, which means all of our students are her children. And she cares for each one in her own unique way. We went up together.

When the elevators opened to the waiting room, the smell hit me first. You know that hospital smell-clean and sterile, with the smell of medicine underneath it? It was that, combined with the very distinct odor of weed. The waiting room was filled with people, and my eyes searched first for A’s mother. When I found her, I moved to hug her, tears in both our eyes. During the hug, I whispered in her ear, “I’m so sorry” before remembering she couldn’t hear me. A’s mom is deaf. I looked at her, and said clearly, “I’m so sorry.” She’s an excellent lip reader. The room was shocked that we were there. Word spread quickly that we were the school principal and Campus Coordinator. They ushered us back to the intensive care unit so we could see A. I stood there, beside his bed, looking at all the machines attached to him. His face. His face was virtually unrecognizable. There were bloody bandages wrapped around his head and so much swelling. The nurse asked me if we were from the school. Apparently someone had said we were coming and the family had given permission for the medical personnel to speak with us. “Is there any brain activity?” I asked. Only reflexes was the answer. The bullet had entered his cheek, and passed through his brain, leaving behind a path of destruction. “How long?” I asked. “It’s up to him.”, was the answer. I stood there, and looked at this young man for what felt like a long time. I held his hand and tried to deal with the competing emotions of anger, loss, sadness, and failure. I quietly said goodbye to A.

Back in the waiting room, I had the opportunity to look around. There were two main groups in the room, with competing and very visible emotions. Family was there. A seemed to have a very large family. Sadness emanated from his family in waves. And then there were large groups of young men, ages fourteen into their early twenties. This was A’s gang. And the rage they brought to the room, along with the now prominent smell of marijuana, physically backed us into a corner. Their conversations were really only about one topic; violent revenge. I’ve never been in a room like that. I had to put aside my own sadness to manage the situation. Several of my teachers came to see A, and one student came too. In a room this filled with emotion, and so much of that emotion was rage; I needed to keep my team safe. I moved us, nearer to the exit, for safety. And we stayed close to our police officer friend; knowing full well, that his gun was unlikely to be the only one in the room. We stayed for awhile, and just before we left, the doctor came out to talk to the family. But the family wanted everyone to hear the same message. “There is no chance of recovery. He has a traumatic brain injury.”The family began crying, and the the gang’s rage increased. Several gang members punched walls. And then they got quiet; resolute even. And they filed out towards the streets, and their quest for revenge on whoever has perpetrated this act of violence.

So much more happened while we were there. But I can’t do the awfulness justice. So, we left soon after.

To the key fact that you as the reader must be wondering about. A was in a gang. It was a street gang, a neighborhood gang, and a dangerous gang. And that might be the end of the story. You the reader are certainly entitled to think, that a young man who chooses to be in a gang, runs the risk of dying a violent death. You can think that. I can’t stop you, or ask you not to think that way. But it doesn’t tell the full story. Not even close.

A was more than his gang affiliation. It was certainly a piece of who he was. He was in a gang as everyone in his neighborhood has to be in a gang. There isn’t really a choice. But he was also a son to a deaf mother, and a deaf and blind father. A was fluent in American Sign Language. He lived in a silent home, and he loved coming to school to be social and to engage out loud and engage he did; often extremely loudly. He was smart. He had huge gaps in his knowledge, as many of my students do, and he was way behind in his learning. But he was so intelligent. He had an amazing sense of humor. He made his friends and teachers both laugh out loud when they least expected it. He cared about people. He could have been an ambassador for our school. He greeted everyone, with a story, or a comment that always sucked them into conversation. He never lied. Ever. No matter what stupid thing he’d done, and there were plenty, he always told the truth. He was a peacemaker. He could resolve almost any conflict that occurred at school. He pulled people aside and mediated on his own, all the time. He was my early warning system. He came to me regularly to tell me what I needed to know to address a volatile or soon to be volatile situation. He was my biggest advocate at school. He single handedly built and cultivated my badass reputation over the last two years. Whenever students broke the rules, A pulled them aside. I could always count on him to tell new students, some version of, “Do not mess with Mr. Juli.” “You cannot out argue him.” “You cannot out wait him.” “If you are doing the wrong thing, you will not win.” I can think of at least a dozen times that a student was nose to nose with me, cursing at me, and ready to hit me. And A would inevitably appear, and say, “Bro, I know you think you right, but do not fuck with this man. Step back. You will not hit him. Not only will he lay you out in front of everyone here, but when you do try and hit him, you’ll have to deal with me bro, and then you’ll be in real trouble.” And the other student always backed down.

He drove my teachers crazy. He didn’t do any work. And he disrupted every class with his questions, his wondering, his flirting with girls, his goofiness, and his laughter. I’m sure he would have driven me crazy had I been his classroom teacher. But I had the opportunity to teach him when it was just the two of us. I helped him to learn to dream-a little. We talked about a life beyond the streets where he lived. We talked about using his skills with American Sign Language to build a career. We talked about having a job he wanted, instead of a job he had to have. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to imagine what it might be like to have a different life. But he still went home to his gang life, and to the dangerous streets where he lived. Every Friday, I said the same thing to him, “Stay alive this weekend A. I expect you to be back here at school on Monday.” And every Monday he came to me, and said, “I’m here Mr. Juli.”

One day last spring, some guys showed up after school to kill him. My police officer friend and I saved him that day. It was a Friday. On Monday, when I saw that he was alive, I sat him down, and told him that I dreaded the day I would have to speak at his funeral. I told him if he didn’t make significant changes in his life, I would be attending his funeral in the not so distant future. He cried, and said “You right Mr. Juli, you right.” He knew I was speaking the truth. And he had learned to dream of another life, but he didn’t know how to turn that dream into a reality.

And here we are. I can’t speak at his funeral yet, because even though he’s dead, machines are keeping his heart beating as his mother considers whether or not to donate his organs. I can’t speak at his funeral yet because there’s no money for a funeral. It turns out burying your child is a middle class activity. That’s not something I’ve ever considered before.

I can’t write too much about the rest of the week at school. I live tweeted grief at our school on Wednesday. You can read it if you want. But here’s a few parts. I had a wonderful group of grief counselors to support our students. Two of my principal colleagues sent over their guidance counselors to help also. My students needed to talk; and we had the people for them to talk privately and in groups and that saved us. My teachers were amazing. They were compassionate and caring, and they managed to strike the right balance between teaching, learning, caring, and listening. And that’s just not easy to do.

No one taught me in principal school how to deal with this level of grief. It’s particularly hard because so many of my students have experienced violent deaths of friends and loved ones over and over again. What words could I say?

I went to each of my at-risk boys and told them I had held A’s hand at the hospital and said goodbye. And that I’d thought of each of them in that moment. “I can’t do this again.” I said. “I can’t do this again and have it be you.” All but one of them cried at my words and that gave me a little bit of hope.

Fairly early in the day on Wednesday, I found a group of students in a back corner discussing revenge and payback. I told them we could all be sad today. We could all be angry today. But we will not answer yesterday’s violence with violence today. And I made everyone agree out loud that we could not and would not perpetuate this violence today or any other day at school. At school. I can draw that promise out of my students in our space. I can’t pretend their promise extends to their neighborhoods and the dangerous streets therein.

That line about sadness, and anger and non-violence became my go to line. I used it all day, and all week. It helped. I think. The rest of the time I told students the raw truth. A is brain dead. He’s dead, and his body just doesn’t know it yet. So many students cried. I held sobbing young men, and sobbing young women in my arms for the last three days. On Wednesday, I walked around with a wet patch on my shoulder from all the tears.

Wednesday morning was awful at school. But by Wednesday afternoon, students were craving normalcy. We had regular school on Thursday and Friday, with counselors on hand. I stayed on the move, making sure I had face-time with every student. I did my best to take their emotions from them, so each student could have the ability to do school. I described myself to my wife, as PacMan. I went from student to student taking their anger, sadness, rage, and hurt from them as best I could. I ate it. Or I took it inside myself somehow. I filled myself up with every emotion, from every student who would let me. And now I’m so full. I took so much in, and now I don’t know how to find my own emotions. I cried on the way to the hospital. And I cried a little on the way home on Wednesday. But not enough. This week also happened to be the 11th anniversary of my own father’s death, and I lost the ability to mourn him this week. I would really like to cry this weekend. Writing this post has helped a little, but I’m both filled up, and empty at the same time. I can’t figure out where I stashed my own emotions inside of me. I hope I can find them and release them this weekend. 

I did everything I could to keep A alive, and to help him find a better life. While I’m not sleeping very well, it isn’t because I think I could have done more or should have done more. I think I did more than everything I could have done. But I still feel his loss deeply. I went to synagogue last night to say Kaddish (the prayer for mourners remembering someone who has died.) I went for my father, but I also said the prayer for A. A was far from perfect, as a student, and a young man. And while many of his actions were wrong, dangerous, or illegal, he was at his core, a good person. I’ve interacted with thousands of students over my career. I know the difference between good and bad. And A was a fundamentally good person, even though he made bad choices. In my professional world, I’ve learned that good and bad, and right and wrong, are not as clear cut as they are in other worlds. 

I hope that A’s mom agrees to organ donation. I like the idea of someone in need getting his heart because his heart was his best part. It is strong, and amazing, and someone in need would be lucky to have it.

By any measurable indicator, I failed as a principal this week. But I tried to be whoever, and whatever each and every one of my students needed. I was a parent, an older brother, a caregiver, a truth bringer, an anchor, and the eye of the storm. I tried, I think successfully, to protect my teachers from most of the emotion, so they could continue to try and teach. It didn’t always work-but it did most of the time.

Two last terrible moments. The first-on Wednesday, amidst all the tears, a former student walked in. He withdrew last year, angry, after multiple fights and discipline incident after discipline incident. He is also in a gang, a different one than A. He walked in to get his transcript for the current school he is attending. But he arrived with a baby. I can’t find the words to write how I felt, but a teacher observed him entering the building with a baby, and said, “It feels suffocating and so Sisyphean.” We try so hard to help our students. We teach them to dream, to hope, and when we get it right, to turn their dreams into reality. And then another gang banger walks in, this time with a kid of his own. Another kid, having another kid. And the cycle continues. How can we win?

The second-I watched the news on Tuesday night, knowing there wouldn’t be a story. It’s just another violent death, of another African American teenage boy in the inner city. Not nearly as story worthy as whatever human interest piece they showed that night. I eventually found the article in the online version of the newspaper. It said a thirty year old John Doe male was found shot in the head on a street corner. He remains hospitalized. That was A. 17? 30? John Doe or A? What does it matter to the public? It matters to me though.

A couple last good moments. Students who no longer attend our school heard how we handled this tragedy. And some called to ask if they could come be with us, and others just showed up to be with us. I let them into the building, even though they aren’t our students any longer, under the condition that they speak with a counselor about their grief. And they all did. Two former students, both high school dropouts, re-enrolled at our school. They want to finish and they want to feel the care that we are offering. And lastly, my most difficult young man, arguably the most at risk student in our school right now, said to a staff member about me, “I hate that man. But he did give us a space to come to this week to be together, and be sad together. And it helped.” I’ll accept that compliment as a badge of honor.

There’s no question I failed as an instructional leader this week.But I think I helped kids; and this week, that mattered more. But their skills are still too low, their gaps in their knowledge too huge, and the graduation tests start in 36 days, so it’s also time to find my way back to instructional leadership. But I’m so full. And I’m so emotionally empty. And I’m so tired. A young man whom I care about deeply was murdered this week. May I never have to write those words again for anyone else ever.

Until next week and please may it be a better one...

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The World Got Inside

Dear Reader,

Thanks in advance for reading this post. Here’s some context for your consideration. In writing this piece, I’m not looking for answers or solutions from you. I’ve been a teacher or administrator in inner city schools for twenty plus years, and I often don’t know what to do. I’m not expecting you to have answers to my questions, my wondering or my musings. Although if you do, I’m happy to hear them-I could use all the help I can get. My purpose for writing this post, and all future posts is simply to bring awareness to the edu-blogosphere that schools like ours exist, and our students have names, and stories, and hopes, and dreams. I love reading about so many amazing educators, doing phenomenal work with outrageously creative and wonderful students, at tremendous schools. AND, I want you to know about our school too. Most principals and teachers in inner city schools aren’t on twitter, but there are so many schools like mine in cities across America, serving thousands of students in underrepresented communities. The purpose of this post is simply to say we are here, and we are dealing with tough problems, without any clear solutions. And if you think about these stories for even a minute beyond reading the post, or if you share it, or tell someone about it, then my students, my teachers, and our community isn’t invisible in that moment. And I can’t ask for more than that. 

Thank you for reading.

There are two competing interests at our school.

First-many of our students will be the first person to graduate from high school in their family, and most will be the first to attend college. We need to find as many ways as possible to connect our students with interesting, and dynamic people outside of the school. The more we can connect out in the larger Cleveland community, the better it is for students. They need to see what Cleveland has to offer if you’re educated and have choices.

Second-Our students live in dangerous neighborhoods. They hear gunshots at night. They cannot travel alone. Most of my students know someone who has died as a result of violence. And the neighborhoods are more often than not, controlled by gangs. Plenty of students at our school aren’t in gangs. But there are also lots of students who have to be gang affiliated, whether they want to be or not. In some neighborhoods, if you aren’t affiliated, you aren’t safe. If you aren’t affiliated, you can’t go outside. If you aren’t affiliated, you aren’t protected. Students have codes, and rules, and expectations that are required in the neighborhood, and my students must abide by them.

I have to juggle these competing interests all the time; Connect our students with the larger Cleveland community and keep the communities our students come from, out of anything connected with our school. We don’t always talk about it, but I’m always aware of these two competing interests. To finish setting the stage, we haven’t had any gang-related issues inside our school, for years. Everyone coexists, regardless of what neighborhood they come from, inside our school walls. There’s lots of reasons for this, ranging from specific things we’ve done to create a safe school environment, to the reality that everyone just needs a break from the violence of their neighborhoods, and school is an agreed upon safe zone. Three or four years, ago, I don’t remember which, a dangerous gang member enrolled in our school after his release from jail. He made it until lunch time on his first day, before he tried to intimidate other students, and make it known that our school would be his territory. His actions led to a brawl in the cafeteria, which led to a whole lot of police racing into our school to help me break up the melee. That student ended up violating his parole shortly thereafter, and I’m pretty sure he’s still in jail. Although we continue to take a hit on our state school report card because even though he only attended our school for about a week, and he was suspended for most of it, ours is the last school he attended, so he counts against our graduation rate. But that’s another post entirely. All that is to say, I can’t think of another gang-related issue that occurred at school, in forever. Until last Thursday.

There was a fight at the bus stop at dismissal. I was working with my math department-we were talking about instructional practices-so I missed the fight. But six boys, and one girl fought. Believe it or not, boys never fight at our school. Girls fight more than I want-but it’s never an issue with boys. This time there was an issue, and after the police helped me to clear the area, I had to determine what happened and why. The short version is the following. Two boys, fought over a girl, two boys fought because they don’t like each other, and the other kids jumped in to support their friends. Unfortunately, all the kids are either in rival gangs, or affiliated with rival gangs. That night, one of the fighters posted a video on Instagram (the bane of my existence). In the video, which we now have, he clearly says a bunch of stuff that I can’t write in this blog post and feel comfortable with it existing on the internet. So I’ll take just a bit of creative license and say he said, “Fuck the dudes from (this neighborhood.)” This very brief video reached gang members with no connection to our school, from both neighborhoods. Then, a second fighter, from the other gang, posted a video naming people who were going to get hurt on the first gangs’ side. But by Friday morning, I was still putting together the reasons for the fight, and I didn’t know about the videos yet.

10:00 AM Friday

A student brought a third video to our attention. I knew about the other two at this point, but we hadn’t seen them yet. In this third video, a student I didn’t know, from another school, was saying he was coming to our school on Friday afternoon to fight. We made a police officer we know aware of this video, and together we figured out what school he attended. The police officer agreed to talk to the student at the other school.

10:45 AM Friday

The police officer reports that he’s handled the other student, and he won’t be coming to our school to fight. I think I have the situation under control.

11:00 AM Friday

My boss arrives at school for a scheduled data meeting. We’ll be going through our individual student data to discuss who’s on and off track to pass the required graduation exams.

11:30 AM Friday
Students start telling adults at school that a whole bunch of dangerous people are descending on our school that afternoon.

12:20 PM Friday

Students report, during our second of two lunches, that two guys were trying to sneak into our school building. We end the data meeting, so I can address safety issues.

12:30 PM Friday

We confirm that multiple students and teachers saw two people trying to sneak into our building. I put the school into a Code Blue Lockdown. Code Blue means that no one can enter or exit the building, all staff and students have to remain in place, but teaching and learning can still continue.

12:31 PM Friday

My security officer and I search the building from top to bottom to ensure no one got into the building and to make sure there’s no way into the building. As we finished our search, the School District Police arrive.

For the next thirty minutes or so, we tried to figure out what we know and what we don’t know. We’ve got great relationships with our students, so we called in students who we knew would talk with us, who were also gang affiliated. They confirmed for us that gang members from both gangs were descending on our school. A couple of words of explanation here-My team and I have great relationships with our students and I rely on those relationships everyday, all the time. But when gang members from the neighborhoods descend on our school, those relationships don’t matter, because I don’t know anyone that’s coming. These are guys who are loyal to their gang above anything and everything, and they don’t know me, and don’t care about our school. My best tool is rendered useless under these circumstances. We asked our students to try and call off the masses from showing up at school, and they tried for sure. But it didn’t work.

1:30 PM Friday

I took the school out of lockdown. We were safe inside the building, so no need to stay in a lockdown, but I know it’s going to be dangerous outside of the building, so I need a plan to dismiss teachers and students safely. I don’t have one yet.

1:50 PM Friday

My security officer recognizes the two guys who tried to get into the building. They are about a hundred yards away, at the bus stop outside of school. The police head out to talk to them, and they say they are just waiting for the bus. We know they are lying, so we watch. I’m still working out the plan to get everyone out safely.

2:15 PM Friday

The bus comes and goes and the guys don’t get on. A jeep that we hadn’t noticed pulls up outside the school, and a whole group of guys step out. Two more guys appear from beyond my line of site. They are all talking with the bus stop boys together. We don’t know which gang this is yet, but they are clearly there waiting for dismissal.

2:16 PM Friday

Our 9th grade team all has off last period, so they can plan together. I decide to use a trick I learned in New York City to take advantage of the idea of safety in numbers. I ask the 9th grade teachers to station themselves at all doors at dismissal to ensure that every student has to exit via the front doors. I have my Campus Coordinator and my Security Officer stationed at the front doors. The plan: Funnel all students to the front doors, but don’t let them out of the building. Keep the front doors closed until everyone is gathered at the doors, then open them, so the whole school walks out in one big mass at the same time. It’s harder to attack any individual when such a large group is on the move together. I decided to use the same plan for the teachers. I called on a teacher-leader to spread the word to all the teachers. They would meet in the underground garage at dismissal, and wait until everyone was ready to leave, and then leave as one group. The garage door would open and close just once.

2:18 PM Friday
My wife calls to ask me to pick up pull ups. I prefer to tell my wife about these incidents once they are over. No good can come from talking about it as it’s happening. Telling too soon will just cause unnecessary fear. So we discuss pull ups. And the weekend plans. Sometimes my suburban middle class life collides with my inner city experiences, and it’s either absurd, insane, or both. This is one of those times.

Dismissal is at 2:30. And between 2:16-2:30, more police arrived to help outside the school. I didn’t tell the students what we were doing and why, and I didn’t tell the parents who pick up each day outside the school. I didn’t want to cause a panic.

2:30 PM Friday

We gathered the students at the front doors and they left en-masse at about 2:34 PM. The teachers drove off a few minutes later, and the inside of the building was empty and secure. But the outside was another story.

I escorted students to cars and chatted with parents, while always keeping my eyes open for the danger that was around us. But I stayed close to the school doors. For years, I used to jump into these dangerous situations. I went into the fray, always, because I felt like I needed to be there to keep my students safe, to help keep the calm, and to be level-headed. But I have two young sons, and I’ve learned that I can keep everyone else self, and also keep myself safe. I didn’t always know that truth, but I do now.

The police handcuffed detained the two guys from the bus stop to be safe. Other officers found the other gang waiting a block away, at an alternate bus stop that my students use. In total, we had between 10-15 gang members outside our school. Some had guns. And those are just the guys I know about.

2:40 PM Friday

I headed to the bus stop near the school to ensure everyone gets on the bus safely. I’m there, but I’m also there with the police.

2:45 PM Friday

My wife is running an event that evening so I need to pick up my kids. I realize I’m not making it to my son’s elementary school for pick up, so I begin leaving messages with friends to help me out. “Hi, it’s Eric, I’m not going to make it to dismissal on time. I’m dealing with a police issue. Can you pick up my son, and I’ll get him at your house?” (See comments about worlds colliding above.)

3:00 PM Friday
Everyone is safe and I thank the police for their support. We discuss how we haven’t solved anything, only delayed it and we agree to meet again on Monday to figure out how to actually solve the problem. I race to my car to head to get my kids. There’s no traffic and I’m able to get to them fairly quickly. But the ride is too short. I need traffic to decompress, but there isn’t any.

I don’t know how to describe how hard it is to switch from inner city principal managing a dangerous situation to suburban dad in way too short a time. Maybe it’s like riding a race car at over 100 miles per hour and then switching to precision needlepoint without a break in between? I don’t know. I picked up my kids, they hugged me and asked me how my day was. I lied and told them it was good and switched the discussion to another topic.

I wish I could say the incident ended there. But it’s a week later, and I’ve spent virtually every minute of every day since then working on this issue. I’ve spent more time with the police this week, than I’ve spent with my wife. I haven’t been in classes, and I haven’t been much of an instructional leader. But I’ve learned the ins and outs of gang affiliations, addressed a dozen kids loosely, directly, and indirectly involved in this. I’ve yelled, been scary, been supportive, and been angry-sometimes all at the same time. I also made time to read with R from last weeks’ post. Fortunately for me, he was out with the flu on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. It’s fortunate because I couldn’t have made more time to help him, and that would have set back our very tenuous positive relationship.

Yesterday, the original fighters returned to school. I spent the day threatening, yelling, cajoling, and threatening some more. I ended the day with the police, clearing the neighborhood to make sure no one fought. To be clear, I’m not proud of myself when I have to yell and threaten teenagers. I see all these wonderful tweets about how we ought to talk to kids, and how to be inspirational in school to get the best out of students. It hurts me every time I have to talk to students this way-but no one can learn if they don’t feel safe. And both learning and safety were in short supply this week. And sadly, sometimes inspiration, goodness, and hope isn't enough. Needless to say, all the yelling meant it wasn’t my best day as a principal. These gang issues took up an entire week. And I mean almost every minute of an entire week. Letting the world sneak into our school, led to the dam breaking, and I couldn’t stop the world as it swept into our building. And now I need to rest, so I can get back here on Monday to keep the world out and get back to us having some semblance of a school with teaching and learning as the focus.

In order to help these students to grow and cultivate dreams that can be achieved, I have to connect them with great people and ideas in the larger community. To have the life they deserve, they must connect with the community. But to have the life they deserve, I also need to keep the community out of the school. It’s the community that creates danger, and teaches us that hopes and dreams can never become a reality. Connect with the community; and keep the community out. Both. Always. At the same time. Striking this balance is an unbelievable challenge. How do I do it better than this past week? Sometimes I think I know. And sometimes I’m positive I don’t.

Until next week...

Saturday, January 27, 2018

A Hard Truth

Dear Reader,

Thanks in advance for reading this post. Here’s some context for your consideration. 

In writing this piece, I’m not looking for answers or solutions from you. I’ve been a teacher or administrator in inner city schools for twenty plus years, and I often don’t know what to do. I’m not expecting you to have answers to my questions, my wondering, or my musings. Although if you do have some ideas, please feel free to share-I could use all the help I can get. 

Instead, my purpose for writing this post, and all future posts is simply to bring awareness to the edu-blogosphere that schools like ours exist, and our students have names, and stories, and hopes, and dreams, and struggles. I love reading about so many amazing educators, doing phenomenal work with outrageously creative and wonderful students, at tremendous schools. AND, I want you to know about our school too; even though not all the stories have a happy ending. Most principals and teachers in inner city schools aren’t on twitter, but there are so many schools like mine in cities across America, serving thousands of students in underrepresented communities. 

The purpose of this post is simply to say we are here, and we are dealing with tough problems, without any clear solutions. And if you think about these stories for even a minute beyond reading the post, or if you share it, or tell someone about it, then my students, my teachers, and our community isn’t invisible in that moment. And I can’t ask for more than that. Thank you for reading.

I have a 9th grade student; R, who is very difficult in school and at home.

Our building is a square, with all the classrooms around the outside of the square and open in the middle. R can most often be found, running around the outer edges of the building to avoid classes and adults. R is very immature, and very whiny when he’s confronted with his inappropriate behavior. Sadly, he’s not so nice to talk to. He is prone to angry outbursts, and over-the-top temper tantrums. As educators, we don’t often say this, but the truth is-R isn’t a very likable kid. And, in addition to not being particularly likable, and his bad behavior, R can barely read. He’s fourteen years old, and he’s only a slightly better reader than my own six year old, first grade son.

Can you imagine not being able to read? I can’t-not really. I love to read. I’ve always loved to read. Reading keeps me sane, and I make time to read every night, no matter how exhausted I am from the day that was. There are certainly classes I struggled with in school-but reading, well, I can’t remember a time that being a reader wasn’t a part of who I am. But for R-reading hasn’t ever been a part of his life. It’s like the books at the library are all in locked, glass cabinets. He can see in, but he can’t get to them. And if he could ever get to the books; what could he do with them?

This week, R was having a particularly difficult day. He skipped multiple classes, and ran his normal route around the building. As I mentioned, our building is a square, so as long as I position myself along his route, eventually, he’s going to run right into me-and that’s what happened. As I brought him to the office, the cursing began. “Fuck you, bro.” was the main insult that came my way repeatedly. It went on and on, and escalated in volume, to the point that my custodian/basketball coach came into the office to try and calm R down. No luck there either. I left the office, to handle another issue (fun day!), and my PE teacher tried to speak with R. Upon my return to the office, every adult within earshot said in my absence R had threatened to “beat the shit” out of my PE teacher and out of me.

As an aside, just in case you are wondering, people threaten to hit me fairly regularly-I usually hear that threat a couple of times a week. But I’ve only ever been purposefully hit by a student once in twenty-two years, and I’ve been threatened at least a thousand times. That one time getting hit wasn't any fun at all, but my point is, although I hear it all the time, it’s almost always just an empty threat.

As R escalated his behavior, I asked my secretary to call his mother to come in and meet with us. When she arrived, R’s behavior got significantly worse, and he directed equal amounts of ire at his mother as at me. We sat down in my office, and R began by turning his chair away from me. I’ve got a bunch of tools in my toolbox to encourage students to de-escalate their behaviors, so without offering every detail, we got to the point where R was sitting quietly and listening.

I began. “It’s time for a hard truth.

You can’t read.

You’re expected to graduate in May of 2022, and you aren’t going to. You’ll drop out before then because you can’t read.

You can’t get a job, because you can’t read the applications.

You can’t do any tasks that require the most basic reading skills.

You’re going to be living with your mother for the rest of her life, because without being able to read, you have no choices, and no opportunities.

You show up at school, but being here isn’t the same as learning. You can’t read.

You can say ‘fuck you, bro’ as many times as you like and you still can’t read.

You can threaten our PE teacher, and you still can’t read.

You can threaten to hit me, and you still can’t read.

You can run around the building day after day and you still can’t read.

We might be able to help you, but you won’t let us, and you still can’t read.”

I continued. “If I could go to your elementary school and yell at them for passing you through to us year after year, I would. I can’t imagine what it feels like to sit in classrooms day after day, year after year, and not be able to read. It must be so scary and I know I’ve never felt anything like that.”

I never got into a fight when I was a kid. But I’ve always been able to punch with words. I joke sometimes with my students and staff about words hurting. But I took it a step further than just hurting. I eviscerated a fourteen year old boy. By the time I stopped talking both R and his mother had tears running down their faces. Was I too harsh? I wonder what you, the reader, thinks about my words? Perhaps you speak to students this way also? Or maybe you aren’t in schools where these conversations need to happen? What bothers me is not that I made R cry, or that I had to speak harshly to him. What bothers me is that I’m the first person to have this conversation with him. His mother knows he is a struggling reader, but she hasn’t ever spoken to him in this way. And what about his former teachers and principal? I don’t know. As I mentioned, R isn’t particularly likeable. He’s just the kind of kid that gets passed on, whether he learned or not.

So now what? Honestly, I have no idea. I don’t have anyone on staff who who is reading certified or has any idea how to teach a fourteen year old to read for the first time. My current plan is to pull him out of science class as often as I can, and teach him how to read myself-as best I can. To be clear, I’m not a reading teacher either. But I am a learner, so I’ll do my best. Can we help R? I really don’t know. I don’t ever give up on students, and I’m not starting now. But the mountain ahead of R is pretty damn big.

R is my most disruptive non-reading student, but he isn’t my only one. I have three. R, another 9th grader, and a 17 year old, who is trying to repeat, 9th and 10th grade classes, and take 11th grade classes, while barely being able to read-all at the same time. I’m supposed to know what to do. I’m supposed to have the answers. But I don’t. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears. Oh, by the way, in addition to these three students who are essentially non-readers, I have another another seventy students across 9th and 10th grades who read between a 2nd and 5th grade reading level. Any suggestions? How similar is this to your experiences?

These are our students and our challenges. As I’ve mentioned, the work is incredibly hard. And when we fail, students end up living in poverty, or in jail, or with the life they have to have instead of the life they choose. Time to get back to work.

Until next week….

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Is It Getting Better?

I write mostly about my experiences in our inner city school. I purposefully stay away from the teacher experience for several reasons. First, while I’m still very much a teacher, I’m no longer a classroom teacher. And secondly, it’s next to impossible to write all the contextual pieces that are needed to really understand what it means to teach in our environment. Sometimes what I write is misinterpreted-it’s easy to misinterpret when a reader unknowingly places their often white, middle class values about school, and teaching and learning on my school context. It’s not a stretch to say my school is on a different planet from most edu-blogosphere and edu-twitter users’ schools. So I worry about how my teachers will be perceived if I write about their experiences.

This week, in response to my last post, Matt Mineau asked about the teacher experience at our school, and then again in a google hangout we held a few days ago, he asked, “Is it getting better?” So, as long as you, the reader, agree to direct any of your frustration about teaching and learning at my school, at me, and not at my teachers, I’ll give sharing their experiences a shot.

You know that game, Two Truths and a Lie? It’s the first descriptor that comes to mind in trying to answer Matt’s question of “Is it getting better?” So let’s play the game:
  • It’s getting better all the time
  • Students are learning
  • We’ve never been this good, and we’re still a million miles from where we need to be.
Which are the truths and which is the lie?

Before I answer, let me try and paint a picture of what it is to teach in this environment. Most teachers have classes of 25-32 students. Not terrible, and not great either. Teachers teach five 54 minute periods per day, they have one 54 minute period off, and one 40 minute lunch period. I’ve worked hard to ensure that almost every teacher is only teaching two different courses and not three. Mostly, teachers are broken down into teaching 9th grade only, 9/10, and 11/12. First period starts at 8:00 AM. The doors open for students at 7:30 AM to come in and have a free breakfast. 100% of our students receive free breakfast and lunch. We’re not a neighborhood school, so students come to us from all over the city. There aren’t any school busses for students, so everyone takes public transportation to get to school. We have students who arrive at school with plenty of time to eat and be ready for first period, and we have plenty of students who leave their homes between 6:00 AM and 6:30 AM and the bus drops them off at school between 8:15-8:30. That is absolutely the earliest they can get to school, and they miss most of first period every day. There are seven required graduation tests in the state of Ohio. The tests aren’t terrible. They are assessing learning and application of learning. They are similar in style and scope to the MCAS in Massachusetts and the Regents in New York.

60% of entering 9th graders every single year, read and do math below a 5th grade level. At a meeting for my own first grade son this week, I learned that he scored a 168 on the NWEA, MAP Reading Assessment. I have a group of 9th graders scoring between 185-195. That means they are reading at or around a second grade level-as 9th graders. Just take that in again. My first grade son, who is an emerging reader, is just a little behind a to-large group of my 9th grade students.

Most students have lost someone to violence. Most students live in single parent homes. Most students live with their mother or grandmother. I have several amazing fathers engaged in our school-but most students don’t engage academically with their fathers.

Our students come to school hungry. They come to school cold. They arrive angry. Many exhibit the signs of PTSD-and receive no counseling services. A large group need glasses and don’t have them. A percentage of that group needs glasses, don’t have them and have no idea they need glasses. Picture your own high school or middle school. How many students wear glasses and/or have braces? I think I have two students with braces. And dozens of students who cannot see the front of the classroom because they don’t have access to glasses.

If you came to my school and asked one question- “What vegetable do you like to eat?” The most common answer would be-ranch dressing. There’s a supermarket, and it’s a good one, across the street from my school. But there aren’t supermarkets in any of my students’ actual neighborhoods. Think of the implications of that-there is no access to fresh fruits and vegetables for virtually all of my students. Students start eating hot cheetos, doritos, and soda on their way to school. That’s breakfast, lunch and often dinner. Or McDonalds-McDonalds is common for breakfast and dinner too. Students who never eat anything healthy are grumpy. They get tired easily, and they exist in a perpetual state of hangriness. Students have headaches all day. They are dehydrated, malnourished, and perpetually tired. And then they go to class and my teachers have to figure out how to engage them.

This week, my American History teacher was teaching about Federalism. My World History teacher, Nationalism. In Biology, it was Genetics. And in Physical Science it was Force. In Algebra, it was graphing functions. Pop Quiz: How would you teach Federalism to students reading at a 2nd grade level? A fourth grade level? And if that question feels too abstract, how about this one. How would you teach your elementary aged child to drive a car? It’s the same type of question. How do you teach someone with huge gaps in their knowledge and experiences? How do you teach someone Functions who hasn’t yet learned how to divide? How do you teach Genetics to someone who hasn’t learned cause and effect? How do you teach Nationalism to someone who has never left Cleveland, and doesn’t know that Europe isn’t a country? There are lots of difficult jobs out there. I’m not in the competition game-but it’s hard to convince me there is a more difficult job than teaching in the inner city.

How would you teach students who are hungry, and angry, with gaps in their knowledge, PTSD, and reading many years below grade level? The skills most of us have as teachers only work sometimes in this environment. And there’s a whole other set of skills that you don’t know you need, and have to learn to survive, that are vital to teaching and learning in this community.

When I’m hiring teachers, one of my standard lines is, “We teach kids, not content.” Your love of Shakespeare, or moles in Chemistry isn’t useful in this environment. What’s required is relentless and unconditional care for the kids. We have to like them. We have to believe in them more than they believe in themselves. We have to care deeply about them as people, and not how they relate to or don’t relate to Romeo and Juliet. And it’s so hard. There aren’t words to describe how hard it is. Expert teachers in suburban communities can fail as inner city teachers. The standard set of teaching skills are non-transferable in this environment. Our students curse at our teachers out of anger sometimes, but mostly out of fear. Are you ready to be told “Fuck You” on a regular basis? Sometimes fuck you means what it sounds like. But often it means, I’m lost. I don’t get it. I’m scared. I’m angry. I’m hurt. But every time, it still sounds like fuck you in the way we usually hear it. And it hurts every single time. No matter what the students’ intent.

Our students experience school in a constant state of desperation. Please don’t find out I don’t understand. Our students fear so deeply that despite your best efforts as a teacher, you also won’t be able to help them learn. So maybe it’s better not to try. Our students yell at our teachers. Our students hide in plain sight. They put earbuds in, crank up the music and say with every fiber of their being, “I dare you to get me to care. I dare you to try and teach me.” The notion of readiness to learn is non-existent in our classrooms. School is for sure a place students come to be safe. It’s a place to get warm. It’s a place to get food. And it’s absolutely a place to be compliant. But a place to learn? Not really.

So that’s the context. See why it’s hard to write about it?

Back to two truths and a lie. Did you figure out which were true and which was the lie?

Truth #1

We’ve never been this good, and we’re still a million miles from where we need to be

We’re talking about student learning more than we ever have before. We used to have conversations about safety, and discipline, and law and order, and discipline, and bad parenting, and discipline, and then we’d talk more about discipline. Now, it’s mostly about student learning. We are the best version of ourselves that we’ve ever been. For years, I had as many long-term subs as I did certified teachers. So it was a roll of the dice when walking into a classroom if you would see students engaged in any kind of meaningful task or not. We have chromebooks for everyone now. Teachers are using google classroom, nearpod, and other tools to engage students in the content. We have tools, we have structures, and we have systems in place to have the highest level of engagement we’ve ever experienced.

Truth #2
It’s getting better all the time

We have the best set of teachers our students have ever had. Every year, we add something new and positive to our academic program. My teachers are immersed in the difficult learning of incorporating literacy skills across the curriculum. It’s hard work. And most of them are killing it. Remember before I listed some of the topics students were covering last week? Federalism, Nationalism, Genetics, and Force. Now add to those already difficult topics, teachers incorporating instructional tools and strategies so students can specifically grow their very low literacy skills. High school teachers don’t think of themselves as reading teachers. And our teachers don’t either. But they’ve taken on the challenge of incorporating literacy everywhere possible. My PE teacher has students reading articles and using graphic organizers as part of the learning in her class. We’ve never approached anything like that before and it’s vital to support our students in the manner in which they need and deserve.

The Lie

Students are Learning
Students are compliant. Students are engaged in tasks and activities. Students are doing more relevant work than ever before. But I can’t yet prove that they are learning. Is every class in every high school about learning? I wish the answer was yes, but it’s not. It’s my seventh year as the principal of our school, and I can’t say definitively that all students are learning. Does that make me a bad principal? Maybe. Does it mean I have terrible teachers? It could. But I would challenge anyone reading this to come to our school and do it differently and better. It’s so damn hard.

Back to Federalism, Nationalism, Genetics, and Force. There are so many better ways to teach those topics than what we are using. PBL, Design Thinking, Genius Hour, and on and on and on. But our students have no idea what learning looks like. For them, school has always been an exercise in compliance. Not only do we have to teach students to read, but we have to teach them to learn. For most of us, if we decided to run a marathon, we’d have to train for it. I’d die if I had to run a marathon tomorrow. If we want to play in a band, we have to learn the instrument and practice, and then practice some more. But everyone just assumes that students know how to learn, just because they showed up at school. Our students don’t know how. And the absence of knowing how to learn, means the absence and evidence of actual learning.

Currently, I’m teaching my teachers to differentiate content, process, or product in their classrooms. They don’t know how to differentiate? They do, at your schools. What they don’t know how to do is teach Federalism, Nationalism, Genetics, Force and Graphing Functions to the couple of students who are at or above grade level, to the 10 students who are a 5th-8th grade level, and to the 15-20 students who are well below a 5th grade level, all at the same time-while also teaching literacy skills, and trying to teach students to be learners. Do you know how to do that? If you do, please come help. I’m teaching every day. And my teachers are learning it. Slowly. And they are incorporating it into their classes while learning it themselves-and that’s not easy to do.

Learning is the last mountain to climb. Are we getting better? Yes. Is it enough? No. It’s not close. If you have any thoughts on how to do this differently, or better, please come on over. We all want to do better for our students. And our students need us to be better at a faster rate than we can possibly improve in reality. Their lives at actually at stake. And so we press on.

Until next week...

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....