Sunday, September 11, 2011

This is Life or Death

I attended a student’s funeral last Friday. She was a tenth grader, a fifteen year old, and a young woman just beginning her life. She was murdered, shot in the head, while out after midnight in her neighborhood.

I believe it’s important to use this blog as a platform to share my experiences as an inner-city educator as we work to improve our school and our community. I wish I could share how exciting it has been to meet my students and the staff at our school. I’d love to say the first week went off without a hitch. But the truth is the first full week was rough. Grief counseling for students and helping to raise funds for a funeral was a higher priority than getting into classrooms and setting up my office.

Blogging doesn’t always have to be about what went right or went wrong in our schools. I think reading a principal or teacher blog can be an opportunity to see a glimpse of what a colleague in a different setting is experiencing. I want to share my experience at this funeral, but I wish I were a stronger writer, because I’m just not sure what words to use.

I wish I knew how to describe the feeling of watching my student’s teenage friends, classmates and neighbors walk slowly past her open coffin.

I also don’t know how to describe my emotions as I watched how heart wrenching it was for some students to confront their friend’s loss, and how it was even more difficult to watch other students expressions of absolute acceptance of the circumstances of her death. It never occurred to me that attending this funeral meant I would have to watch teenagers accept the death of another fifteen-year old girl as a normal everyday occurrence.

It’s impossible to describe the conflicting messages and the accompanying emotions we received at this funeral. The pastor attempted to lead attendees in a funeral service in which he framed that the deceased is in a better place. While he spoke and participants sang beautiful hymns and songs in honor of the deceased and God, members of the city gang unit watched the mourners carefully to ensure no trouble ensued. Local community organizers spoke directly to the gang members in attendance explicitly stating that gang affiliation and violence leads to more funerals like this one. And the deceased friends spoke lovingly and sadly about their lost friend, while proudly wearing gang symbols and speaking positively about happier times in their neighborhood. Each and every teen who spoke mentioned their other friend or cousin, or neighbor who had been shot, injured or killed. They spoke of these events in a matter of fact tone; in the same way I would talk about last nights’ meal or picking up my suit at the dry cleaners.

What a heartbreaking day. Partially because of all I heard and saw at the funeral, but mostly because I saw acceptance of this event on so many of my student’s faces. There wasn’t nearly enough outrage, anger or fear at the funeral, and frankly I searched for it. As a teacher and a principal, I can use outrage, anger, or fear to fuel the fire in our students. But acceptance is something else; and it’s far more difficult to engage students positively when they accept the violence in their midst as the norm.

Educating in the inner city is actually about life or death. When I was in high school, it didn’t matter if I had good or great teachers because I was headed for college regardless. I could make stupid mistakes and move past them with relatively benign consequences. It's just not the same for my students. A mistake, any mistake can lead to a funeral like the one I attended. 

I believe that you readers who take the time to read this blog and others are some of the best teachers and leaders across this country. I read about your passion in your blogs and tweets. I hear your enthusiasm and commitment at edcamps. We need you at my school and other city schools across this country. School is life or death for our kids and we need the best teachers and leaders this country has to offer. What we do is so hard, but we need you to join us to help city kids imagine a different future than the one I saw at that funeral.

When we returned to school last week, we held a town meeting with all the students to give them one last time to speak about their classmates’ death. We had hospice and grief counselors on hand to speak with individual students who needed support. And then when it was over, we returned to the business of school.

It’s taken me all weekend to write this post and consider my emotions from this event. I checked in on twitter and my Google reader and saw how excited so many teachers are to start the year at their schools. I saw frustrated comments about standardized testing and excited posts about flipped classrooms and web2.0 tools. My start of the year was very different from what I expected. But for me, these events only served to strengthen my resolve about the work we do in inner city schools. After the funeral, I went home and hugged my five-year old son and tried to put aside all that I experienced that day, while he told me about his day at kindergarten. Then I held my five-month old son in my arms, and tried to push aside the images of young mothers carrying their babies by the open casket at the funeral.

I’m in the right place doing the only job I want right now. School for me this week means getting into classrooms and talking about teaching and learning with my teachers. I also need to find a ninth grade girl a pair of glasses. She can’t see the board or the books and she’s purposefully getting kicked out of class because she doesn’t want her teachers to know she can’t see. I also need to figure out where the local Costco is in my new city so I can buy some food to store in my office. One young man keeps on coming to my office to talk, which I love, but he’s also looking for food, because he comes to school so hungry. And he’s not the only one who needs some healthy snack options to get through the day.

I went to a student’s funeral and it was terrible for so many reasons. But I still believe that school and hope can be synonyms if we’re purposeful in our actions. So I’m headed back to work in the morning. I can’t wait to see the kids.

This is cross posted over at Connected Principals 

CC Images:

…Hope…by DazT {bad contact, no biscuit}

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Time For A Change

Every August, I lead the new teacher training in our district for all incoming middle and high school teachers. Most of the teachers aren’t just new to our district; they are embarking on their new teaching careers. First we have a crash course in how to be a city teacher, and then towards the end of our time together, I make sure they understand the importance of fitting into our district, and knowing that the Lawrence Public Schools is the right place for them. I explain that in our inner city setting, it’s so important to understand that we teach kids first and content second. So, if one of our new teachers perceives of herself as a teacher of Shakespeare, or as someone who loves teaching about volcanoes, then our district may not be the right fit. Connecting with our students and meeting their needs is far more important than specific content knowledge in the world of urban schools. I tell them, there’s no shame in leaving a place to find a better fit for your skill set, strengths, and interests.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to Bill Simmons’ podcast with David Kahn, general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Kahn has made some questionable player/personnel decisions in the last few years. So many, that some experts consider him to be the worst general manager in the NBA. But as I listened to the podcast, I heard him speak about his decisions in the context of his organization and it was clear that he had made some thoughtful decisions. But they went wrong because of a different problem. There isn’t any alignment between what the owner of the team wants, the decisions the general manager is making, and the manner in which the coach utilizes the players. The result is one of the worst teams in the league.

It’s clear that organizational alignment is vital to the success of a professional basketball team and I would argue it’s just as vital in a school district, especially an urban district facing so many pressures to improve standardized test scores, graduation rates, attendance, and a myriad other issues. I’ve been thinking about fitting in to my district, and the organizational alignment therein for many months.

I’ve been an employee of the Lawrence Public Schools for eight years. Colleen Lennon, one of the finest principals I know, gave me my first administrative opportunity when she appointed me her middle school assistant principal seven and half years ago. And then, a few years later, seemingly out of the blue, our superintendent offered me the opportunity to lead the districts’ efforts to design six small high schools. We converted our 3,000 student comprehensive high school in a building more than one hundred years old, into six small thematic high schools on a state of the art campus. I had the amazing opportunity to lead six groups of teachers to imagine six different schools. And since then, I’ve both led and worked collaboratively to try and re-imagine teaching and learning at the secondary level in our urban school district.

As our work has progressed, my own thinking about what a school could and should be has evolved. I’ve spent the last year attending conferences like Educon, NTCamp BurlingtonEdcampBoston, and next week I’m headed to Edubloggercon East. These events, and the wonderful people I’ve met face-to-face, and online, have dramatically and positively impacted my thinking about technology integration, school structures, teaching, learning, and leadership.

To return to that podcast and David Kahn, my thinking is no longer aligned with my district’s thinking. I think it’s presumptuous and more than a little arrogant to assume that my district should conform to my thinking about school, and the more time passes, the more divergent I am from the direction my district is headed. So, I’m taking my own advice and after eight wonderful years in Lawrence, I’ve found a better fit for the educator I am now. My family and I are headed to Cleveland, Ohio, so I can become a principal of a high school in the Cleveland Metropolitan School DistrictI’ll be leading Design Lab Early College High School, in Cleveland’s innovative portfolio of schools. This upcoming school year will be the schools' fourth, and we’ll have our first graduating class. Design Lab is a STEM school, with design thinking as its’ central theme. Our partners are intended to be the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Engineering School at Case Western University. There’s already a strong partnership with Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) for dual enrollment programs for students. 

My intent is to build an amazing team and imagine a new school together. I’ll use future posts to describe my thinking and our process. For now, what the school will be is undetermined. But I am hoping to install a fab-lab this year to get our students designing and applying STEM principles in hands-on applications of their ideas. And then we’ll see what happens next!

So, all that’s left to do is find a place to live in the Cleveland area, put our house in Massachusetts up for sale, pack up our home, move all our belongings, enroll our oldest son in kindergarten somewhere in Ohio, and change a million of our four month olds’ diapers. Oh, I also have to hire the rest of the school staff, build a school schedule, and actually get to Cleveland, all in the next four weeks. If you’re searching for me, I’ll be hiding under my desk.

If you’re looking to teach or be an administrator in an urban district in Massachusetts, I highly recommend you check out the Lawrence Public Schools. The kids and their families are amazing, and I can’t imagine working with a more passionate and dedicated group of teachers and administrators. It’s a place where being an educator means positively impacting students’ lives every day.

And if you know anyone nice in the Cleveland area, educator or not, let me know. My wife and I would love to meet them. Until March, I’d never visited Cleveland, and we don’t know anyone.

If you’re a teacher, an engineer, a designer, or an artist living in the Cleveland area, and you want to re-imagine high school with me, let me know. I’m starting to build a team.

If I’m being honest, I should say I’m a little scared to start a new adventure. But the truth is, I’m more scared of staying where I am, and becoming complacent, and of giving up on my vision of what school can be just to stay in the safe life we've built for ourselves. So we’re off to Cleveland, and I can’t wait to get there. I’ll use this blogging space to let you know how it goes…

CC Images:

Change by Alex Calderon

Cleveland by Cfour33

Panic by litherland

Road to volcanoes by Gabriele Nastro

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Art and Science of Teaching

I’ve always been a good athlete. Playing almost any sport, except the ones where I had to be really tall or strong, came pretty easily to me. In high school, I picked up tennis to rehab a soccer injury, and before I knew it, I was the best player on my team. I was so proud when the coach made me the #1 singles player. And then I started losing…to everyone. I found a coach who agreed to hit with me to help me understand my strengths and weaknesses. On our first day together, I hit all my best shots to show him my tennis skills. When I strutted up to the net, I expected to hear how good I was, and instead he told me, nicely, respectfully, and honestly, that I didn’t know how to do anything. I’d never had a tennis lesson before. So I was using every inch of athleticism I possessed, but if I ever wanted to improve, we needed to start at the beginning. He asked me if I wanted to learn how to play tennis, and if I wanted to understand the game. When I agreed to let him teach me, we didn’t start by tracking down difficult shots in the corner, or serving as hard as I could. Instead, he started at the beginning, by teaching me how to hold a racket correctly.

I had a similar experience when I began teaching. At the time, I thought of teaching as only an art. I can’t play the piano or the guitar, but as a young teacher, I thrived in front of the kids. I felt like I could connect with the toughest students; pull inferences and understanding out of a hat, and lead disadvantaged students to the learning I wanted for them. I was an artist, with the classroom as my palate, and the students as the canvas. Then my mentor, over time, nicely, respectfully, and honestly, taught me that entertaining kids and teaching students are not one and the same. She helped me to practice the purposeful shift away from students memorizing what I told them, to students constructing and making their own meaning from the ideas we explored together. My mentor helped me to purposefully practice my teaching, just as my tennis coach had years before. Purposeful practice of specific instructional strategies was my introduction to the science of teaching.   

In my administrative graduate program, Elliot Eisner asked us whether or not teaching was an art or a science? Are all good teachers born to it, or can good instructional practices be learned, practiced, and improved upon? I do believe in an IT factor; a quality that some great teachers have. Those of us who spend lots of time visiting classrooms know that every once in a while we stumble into a room where the teaching and learning is beautiful and it feels like art in the making. But we also know that a school year is a marathon, and plenty of days throughout a school year fall far short of anyone’s criteria of beautiful. Teachers who have IT can connect with angry, shy, brilliant, and struggling students. But IT alone isn’t enough to move student learning forward daily.

I believe good instruction is also a science. I know in urban schools, we give far more credence to the art of teaching than the science. We act like only those teachers with the IT factor can survive in urban communities. But the truth is, it’s the science of teaching that ensures whether or not all students learn. Each year, we hire close to twenty-five first year teachers on our campus of high schools. Many enter our schools like I entered the tennis court in high school or my first classroom, full of confidence. These new teachers are gifted entertainers, talkers, readers, or writers. But they don’t know how to teach, yet.
I’ve learned that new teachers, who are willing, start with practicing the instructional equivalent of learning to hold the racket, improve every year, and become some of our best. Those that believe the IT factor is all they need, either leave on their own, or ultimately we invite them to leave because they can’t meet our diverse learners’ needs.

I’ve spent more time recently thinking about the convergence of the art and science of teaching because my son is learning to swim. Every Saturday, we attend a thirty-minute lesson. His teacher is amazing. Watching her work with my son and the other beginner swimmers has me thinking about what I do and do not see in the classrooms I visit back at school.

Here’s some of what she does:

  • She gets the students excited about both swimming in general and the specific activity ahead
  • She acknowledges whatever fear the students bring to the pool, but she doesn’t let anyone focus on that fear
  • She has a clear idea of the skills she wants students to practice in each lesson
  • Every lesson is a balance between something the students can already do and something they are working to master
  • No swimming skill is ever finished being learned, everything is practiced and refined, and improved upon
  • There are multiple activities in each lesson, but they are all different ways to practice the same skill
  • She encourages, laughs, commends, and challenges the students each and every class
  • She makes time to instruct the whole group, but understands individual strengths and weaknesses
  • She pushes, and never accepts when a student says they can’t do it
  • Every student has the opportunity be successful; and how they accomplish the learning is a little different for each swimmer

At some point in our training most of us take an educational psychology course and study Lev Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Each Saturday, I watch my son’s teacher find his zone. He is nervous at the beginning of every class and so proud at the end of the lesson. His teacher pushes him, meaningfully and purposefully, and I’m watching him learn to swim. His teacher has found the right balance between the art and science of teaching. She absolutely has the IT factor. My son talks about her all week long, and watching her instruction is like watching art in the making. But more importantly, she understands her content and is developing purposeful lessons to push the whole group and each individual student.

I see well-developed lessons regularly. But I don’t regularly see lessons that ensure all students are in their ZPD. Do you? Are you having conversations with teachers and colleagues about how to develop lessons to purposefully push student learning forward? I’ve written before about the hidden contract of urban schools when teachers, students and administrators agree not to push at each other. Watching my son’s swim lessons is a stark reminder for me of how often the school day just happens to our students. Despite our best intentions, students can experience a period, a day, or a week where real learning doesn’t happen. Without a doubt, they are exposed to new ideas regularly, but we have to be far more purposeful about designing learning experiences for students where new learning is the outcome. Attending class and completing seat time towards finishing the day, the week, or the course is not learning. Why does it seem easier to set up meaningful learning experiences for students in the pool, on the tennis court, or on the baseball field, but with those same students, it’s a struggle to set up purposeful and dynamic learning in English, chemistry and history class?

Are you having this conversation at your school? Do you emphasize the art or science of teaching in your community? Is learning about finding each student’s zone of proximal development in your school community? Are teacher teams designing learning opportunities for students in the way coaches help students improve their practice on the athletic field?

The fast pace and relative chaos of each day and the entire year in an urban environment contributes to our efforts to hire teachers who understand the art of teaching, and hope they pick up the science on their own. But growing a good school has to mean investing in teachers to purposefully improve instructional practices. Does your school make this commitment to teachers? Is improving instructional practice a clear component of what your school is all about?

CC images:

Art by viewerblur
Juggling skittles by Jarod Carruthers 
Science ZONE by Jacob Earl 
Swimming Lesson by Eric

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Circle Game

"This world is too big for me to be trapped here” was one of the lines in the Circle Game, a student written play based upon the Joni Mitchell song of the same name. Students at the Performing and Fine Arts High School (PFA), one of six high schools on our campus were the authors and performers of this tremendous play.

I was in the drama club for a time in high school. I participated in light hearted shows and musicals designed to entertain. We laughed as we performed The Mouse That Roared, and sang our hearts out during The Sound of Music. We attempted to write our own musical based on the Poe story, The Masque of the Red Death, because…well I have no idea why we chose a horror story about a plague to frame a musical. Whatever the reason, the product was, if I may be generous, very weak.

So when I think high school drama, I think escapism. But that’s not what The Circle Game is. Instead, our students shined a light on their own experiences as Hispanic youth going to school and growing up in the inner city. In a thirty-five minute performance, the students addressed stereotypes and reality, and offered the viewer insight into their own experiences and identity.

Here’s a little bit of what these high school dramatists offered the audience:

In the school classroom scene, a disconnected white teacher focused on only one student, who the instructor believed cared about learning, while essentially ignoring the rest of the class. The teacher also tells the audience he’s glad Victor, one of his students, was arrested because life is all about choices and the student chose poorly.

A boyfriend physically abuses his girlfriend. When her friend tries to tell her she deserves better, the victim tells her friend, “I’m never going to college, I’m never going to get out of here. Who’s going to protect me? I need protection.”

One character tells the audience about being followed in stores for being Latino, and of being with his mother while being stopped by police and searched just in case they stole from a store. He remarked, “Society pretends we don’t even exist anyway. So I made a choice to use their fear against them, so I could feel strong”, and then he joins a local gang.

A mother returning home from a minimum wage job, exhausted, trying to talk to her son, and with fear in her voice asking “Are you going to end up like your father…dead?”

A senior girl receiving her acceptance letter to Brown University, without a scholarship, and believing she cannot go.

A gang member believing the only way to help the people he loves is by stealing money to pay the rent so his family isn’t evicted.

“I love my mom, but I can’t end up like her. I’m going to make something of myself. This world is too big for me to be stuck here.”

The play ends with a character potentially continuing the cycle of poverty when she learns she’s pregnant, and a gang member, who also happens to be a son, and a friend and a boyfriend, dies in a senseless act.

In the end, an actor looked out at the audience and asked if we, the audience, were putting them, the characters into our circle.

My eyes filled up at the end, in part because of the content, but mostly because the entire auditorium erupted with applause. All five hundred students in the audience cheered, and stood up to give the actors a standing ovation. For thirty-five minutes, we witnessed raw honesty; and the audience knew it. This play spoke to our kids, because it was an honest look at all of their lives. Every character represented someone in that audience. And it certainly wasn’t escapism, because so many of our students don’t feel like they can escape their lives.

It made me so happy to see a play that reflected our students’ experiences and it made me so sad to see our students’ experiences reflected in this play. The short scene in the classroom was painful to watch because the students were showing us what they feel in our classrooms. It was difficult to watch student beliefs about teacher instructional practices and lack of connection with students, acted out on stage.

I hear lots of talk from adults about kids who don’t care, and who are disengaged. But I also see teachers reading novels that they love, but that don’t speak to our students. I talk to frustrated teachers upset because so many students miss their first period class. But I also see older siblings dropping off younger siblings at school because parents are working the night shift and aren’t home or awake at drop-off time. I see angry boys fight, and I see the same young men cradle their mother, sister, or grandmother in the most tender moments.

We each have our own perspective on why students are or are not learning or engaged. But the students clearly have their own ideas too. And I think that’s easy to forget sometimes. It was heartbreaking to watch students tell us about what shapes who they are in this play. But it was so uplifting and wonderful to hear the strength in their voices as they told their stories.

That line, “this world is too big for me to be trapped here” reminded me of the book A Hope in the Unseen. I’ve written about it before in my contribution to blogs for educational reform. In the book, Ron Suskind, a Wall Street Journal writer, discussed a belief and a faith in having something better despite the words of those around us that “we can’t”, or “we won’t”, or “why bother” as a “hope in the unseen.” (Suskind, 1998). He retells the true story of a young man’s journey from the inner city to Brown University. Cedric, the main character defined the unseen as “a place, a place I couldn’t see yet, up ahead… an imagined place that I’ll get to someday (Suskind, 1998, pg. 330).”

All our kids, those up on stage and those in the audience come to school each day filled with that hope. Sometimes they wear it on their sleeves. Those that do are easy to reach and connect with in the classroom. But most do not. Their hope is hidden deep within them, and sometimes they’ve forgotten how to find it. It’s hidden beneath the fear and anger and frustration of feeling like life is happening to them and around them, instead of for them. Hope is hard to find in many of our students. But it was there for everyone to see up on that stage on Friday. Despite our students’ shared experiences of poverty and feeling forgotten and uncared for by society, they dream of a better day, of choices and of opportunity.

As the students cheered, I thought about how brave the kids were to write and perform this play. I often think about the courage it takes to teach and lead in inner-city schools, but I forget sometimes about the courage it takes to come to school every day, when a hope for something better seems out of reach. Our kids have courage, and strength, and dignity, and hope. It’s our responsibility to connect with them and turn that hope into action and results. I am so proud to work with and for our students, but we have so much more to learn to ensure we do better and are better as leaders and teachers on behalf of our students.

CC Images:

Let’s start the show by David

Performance by Dark Botxy

Magdalina Sara Jungck, as a School Teacher by Wisconsin Historical Images

ParentsPstcrd_060910.jpg by Carolyn_Sewell  

Reflection. By Colin Wu

…Hope… by ĐāżŦ {bad contact, no biscuit}

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I Like To Be In Charge

I like to be in charge. More specifically, I like to be in control. I want to be the person driving the car, and I certainly want to be the one holding the television remote. I’m pretty sure my wife loves this about me. Or maybe I should say I wish my wife loves this about me.

Everyday, I work with teachers who also want to be in control. I can’t speak for suburban communities, but in the inner city, the term control is synonymous with power. In city schools, we seem to really care about showing who has the power in the school. Principals show their power by writing teachers up for anything and everything. Teachers show their power by throwing students out of class, giving out lots of F’s, and choosing to teach what they decide students should value. Students show us their power by not coming to school, not doing their homework, and choosing not to engage in class. We’re all so consumed with showing everyone else how much power we have, we lose sight of why became administrators and teachers to begin with.

Power and control is also evident in daily instructional practices. When I first learned to teach, I was an incredibly entertaining lecturer. I made sure every question, idea and discussion point came through me. It was my way of holding the television remote at my job also. Today, when I’m working with new teachers I use the image of a ball of yarn. If the yarn is unraveling every time everyone speaks, where is the yarn? In my early classrooms, an observer could have followed the yarn easily; from me to a student, back to me and to another student and back to me…

It took me several years to learn that learning was much better when the yarn symbolically moved from student to student to student and only seldomly came through me. I see this struggle in action every day when I’m in classrooms. Because we don’t really trust that students want to engage in our classrooms, we make sure any questions, answers or ideas are vetted through us; the instructors. The beautiful struggle that occurs when students are challenged with a new idea, or hear something from a peer they hadn’t ever considered, rarely occurs because of the implicit need to be in charge. Ultimately, almost every lesson is actually about power and control, rather than student learning, and the result is the teacher is in charge and the students are disengaged.

Yesterday, I thought about this classroom struggle for control when I began preparations to paint a bedroom. My wife is eight months pregnant with our second son, and we’re setting up the new baby’s bedroom. Now if you want instructional change to occur in your inner city high school, then I’m your guy to call. But I’m not who anyone would call if work needs to get done around the house. I try hard, but I’ll never be confused for a handyman or contractor. But painting is the one job around the house I really do well. I’ve painted every room, and I take pride in the task. So when my four year old and my wife said they wanted to paint with me, internally I balked. Out loud I said, “Sure, sounds great”, and then I began plotting ways to make sure they couldn’t help. I wanted to be in control and do it myself. My son was sure to paint the floor, and while my wife is perfectly capable, I just wanted to do it. But then I thought about the yarn, and I tried to imagine the benefits of us painting as a family… and I couldn’t come up with any. I wanted control. Every couple of months this happens to me. I have to look in the mirror and face the reality that I seem unwilling to make a choice that I ask teachers to make each and every day.

So I changed my painting preparations. I put more painters’ tape around the room than I ever would have before. I covered the entire floor with plastic, and taped it down so drips wouldn’t get on the rug, and I led us in a family painting cheer before we began. And you know what? It was great. Not only did we prime in half the time it would have taken me to do it myself, but we had so much fun. My son painted like a champion and followed every direction, and my wife, despite feeling huge, awkward, and uncomfortable, got to participate in the preparations for the baby’s arrival. I could tell that actively participating as something more than the incubator, meant so much to her. And the price was twenty extra minutes of preparation on my part.

There are so many necessary ingredients for good instruction to occur. But we often spend all our time focusing on materials, certifications, access to technology and class sizes. In inner city schools, our students enter our classrooms with so much baggage. For me the first day of school was and still is filled with the promise of incredible learning to come. For many of our students, the first day of school is filled with the promise of more frustration, disconnection and failures.

As leaders, we must model with our teachers the contract of trust, shared learning, and collaboration we want to see in classrooms across our schools. If we want teachers to give up control to their students, school leaders must create and live a culture where failure is not only accepted, but desired for learning to occur.

It’s easy to lose sight of our intended outcomes. I still want to hold the television remote, because I like to be in charge. And my wife, because she loves me, is willing to look past this character flaw. But when I considered painting the room, I lost sight of the goal. Because I’m busy, I thought of room painting as a task to check off the long To Do List. We do this in classrooms all the time. I need to get through the content, to get to the next piece of discrete content. But painting a bedroom, and teaching kids is so much more than checking off content or tasks from a checklist. We’re changing our family, and it is and will be a mess. My son is shifting from only child to older brother, and that’s going to take time. Our family routines and rituals will all dramatically change. In a classroom, learning done right is never clean, and it never happens quite the way you expect it to occur. There are drips all over the floor, it takes so long, and frankly it’s a mess.

Some teachers love the mess, and know inherently how to create this culture and climate in their classrooms. But not everyone does. As leaders, we set the tone. Speaking for myself, I can’t set a meaningful tone, if I’m not living my beliefs myself. This afternoon, we’ll have Family Painting Part II. It’s sure to be messy, and not exactly what I want, or how I want it. But the room will be beautiful in the end, and years from now, we’ll remember the process more than we remember the outcome.

Isn’t that what really matters?

CC Images:

Remote by kevinthoule 

ball of yarn by chatirygirl 

Paint by maury.mccown 

Ingredients for dinner by Pingu1963 

This piece is cross posted on Connected Principals

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Don't Miss the Day

When I was in high school and home for vacations during college, I used to sleep until noon, minimally. When I woke up, my father would tell me over and over, that I “missed the day!” When he was really feeling playful, he would come into my bedroom and pull off all my covers at once, yelling, “You’re missing the day, time to get up!” I never thought it was that funny, but his whole body shook with laughter, each and every time.

Today is the 4th anniversary of my father’s death. Harold Juli was an Anthropology professor at Connecticut College and the best teacher I’ve ever known. He was 59 years old when he died from an extremely rare form of cancer.

I think generally, when people find out they are dying, they want to do something, anything, just as long as it’s something new and different in their life; skydive, travel to Europe, or quit their jobs. Not my father. A few years before he became ill, my dad and I were talking about our jobs. He told me that this many years into his teaching career, he was still just as excited for the first day of school as he was the first day he ever taught. He said I must always love what I do, to have passion for my work. But it’s one thing to say that when healthy, and another thing entirely to live it when dying. When faced with his own death, all my Dad wanted to do was live the exact life he already had. No travel, no new adventure. Above all, he wanted to continue teaching. And he did, right up until the very week he entered the hospital for the final time.

My father never missed the day, not once, not ever. He woke up each and every morning, some time after five. He was always an early riser and at his desk on campus by 6:30 at the latest. I joked that as an Anthropology professor, he didn’t need to rush; everything he was studying had been dead for quite some time. But he was in such a hurry to get to work that he couldn’t afford to waste even a minute. He pre-tied all of his ties, so they were already knotted, and all he had to do was tighten them.

On my father’s deathbed, in the days before he lost consciousness, he was speaking with one of his many visitors, and someone asked him if he was angry. My father’s response was simple, and I will still consider it for many years to come. He said that he wasn’t angry at all. He said he knew who he was, regardless of his having terminal cancer. He was incredibly proud of his personal and professional accomplishments and cancer wasn’t taking any of them away. He said every day, whether sick or healthy, we must wake up, think about who we are, and what we have to accomplish that day. My father knew who he was. Cancer didn’t change who he was, at any time during his illness.

I think about knowing who I am and what I have to do all the time. And it’s why I’m writing this post. In my understanding of leadership and in my context, knowing who I am, and what I have to do today, is essential to doing my job well. On most days, from the moment I arrive at school, until I exit in the evening, the day is crazy. My colleagues and I joke that if we tried to pitch to a book publisher what happens in a regular day in our urban schools, no one would believe us. So I think it’s vital in the context of the daily craziness around here to know where we’re trying to go, and how we all fit into getting us there.

As leaders we have to know ourselves, and we have to know what we want our schools to become. If we can’t name it, clearly and articulately, how can our teachers imagine our future school with us? If our teachers aren’t invested in a collaborative vision of the future, how can we connect today to tomorrow and beyond with and for students?

In addition to being an Anthropology professor, my father was also an archaeologist. He didn’t do archaeology every semester, but I was fortunate to participate in several digs when I was old enough to know what was happening. Watching my father lead an excavation was like watching a beautiful piece of art come together. When I teach teachers, I work to help them develop real word applications to their course content. Digging with my father was an opportunity to see the past transformed into a relevant, hands-on curriculum.

He combined thoughtful research, hard work, organization, strong excavating techniques, technology, and humor on every dig. My leadership style is modeled after the way my father ran a dig. He made time to teach and learn every day. He organized the day, and ran the show, but made sure to spend meaningful time moving the dirt just like everyone else. He made decisions on the fly, and included everyone in his process, so we all knew why decisions were being made. And best of all, I got to watch him hold a dirt covered artifact in one hand and a turkey sandwich in the other. He’d lick the artifact as his own technique to date it, and then take a bite of the sandwich virtually all in one motion. 

I know that teachers and leaders work incredibly hard everywhere. But the task here, in an urban district is so daunting. To make meaningful, purposeful, and visible change to benefit student learning in my district, I have to know who I am, and what I want to do today. I have to be able help others to envision themselves as actively engaged in defining and creating the schools we want to be. I remain just as excited and passionate about this work as I was my first day as a teacher in Jackson Heights NY. I know from my father that passion is one part of what I need to do this job well. But passion alone isn’t enough. Amidst the sadness of today, and the regular craziness of everyday, I have to know how to lead us forward. Sometimes it’s easy to say aloud, but it’s never easy to put real change into action.

So tomorrow, I don’t plan on missing the day. I’ll wake up early, either a little before or a little after my four year old son comes to visit us, and I’ll make the time to give some thought to who I am, and what I plan on accomplishing. Then, I’ll put one foot in front of the other, just as my father taught me. It’s the only way I know to make meaningful steps towards the change our students need.

CC Images:

Walking Away by JosephB

This is cross posted on Connected Principals

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I'm No Good at Technology

I always considered myself to be a struggling math student. I was either scared of my math teachers, or scared of the content, or I thought I understood what to do when I really didn’t. At Syracuse, when I was an undergrad, there was a Math or Foreign Language requirement, which made perfect sense to me, so I took Spanish. And I happily told people that, “I’m just not a math person.” The truth is, almost everyone accepts this statement as fact because they either feel the same way, or hear this statement from others regularly. With relative ease, I could put together a group of like-minded colleagues who also view themselves as Not Math People.

A few years ago, I was in a National Institute of School Leadership (NISL) session, for administrators in my district. The topic was Leadership in the Mathematics classroom. The instructor asked us directly who thought of themselves as math people and who did not? More than half the group, including me, raised their hands and defined ourselves as Not Math People. His second question was, “Who doesn’t think of themselves as a reading person?” No one raised their hand. Why is it socially acceptable and reasonable to think of ourselves as Not Math People, but it’s completely taboo, embarrassing and inappropriate to define ourselves as Not Reading People? The Not Math People I know carry their Not Math Peopleness as a badge of honor. But to define myself as Not a Reader, or uncomfortable with literacy, just isn’t okay.

This lesson struck a chord. In fact, I felt a little ashamed to have used the Not a Math Person vocabulary for so long. I’ve proudly defined myself professionally as a problem solver for quite some time. So now, when faced with math in my daily life, I try and view it as a problem to be solved. I’m not yet the mathematician I want to be, but I’m improving.

Now I regularly meet I’m No Good at Technology. I’m No Good at Technology is someone who is usually comfortable with a few Web1.0 tools. But anything beyond email, and Microsoft Word, and I’m No Good at Technology tells you it’s not their thing. Would I’m No Good at Technology find it acceptable to not be a reading person or a literacy person?

As a leader, I’m struggling with how to address this issue with my colleagues. I want to push gently, introduce tools one at a time, and build comfort and confidence with Social Media and Web2.0 tools in the classroom and with my administrative colleagues. But I also feel a sense of urgency. In my urban district, students drop out every month. We have to engage students where they are, and the truth is, even in high poverty areas, students are online. Furthermore, while schools may be measured by their standardized test scores, students, after graduation, are not. Out in the world, they are measured by their ability to create, collaborate, write, innovate, use technology and be successful in blended environments. We don’t have any more time to wait for I’m No Good at Technology to slowly feel more comfortable. I can set up Google docs at work, point teachers and administrators to specific blogs and posts to read, encourage teachers to use Diigo and Delicious, but I can’t make teachers and administrators use these tools, and forcing the culture to change on my terms isn’t what I’m looking to do.

That’s why John Carver’s tweet today struck such a chord with me. He sent out an article entitled Three Trends That Define the Future of Teaching and Learning, by Tina Bardeghian from The author framed three key trends in teaching and learning. Teaching and Learning is Collaborative, Tech-Powered and Blended. I like the article, and I like the terms because they are tangible terms with clear definitions for I’m No Good at Technology to grab onto. I won’t summarize the entire article, but like John Carver, I think it’s a must read.
Here’s what I think is most important for change to occur in my context. As a leader, I need to name the change I want to occur. Using the term technology isn’t getting us anywhere. In the same way the word math was intimidating for me, the term technology is a nameless, faceless behemoth that equals fear for some of the administrators and teachers in my district. If technology is the answer to every question, it’s not an answer at all. It’s just like highlighting every word on the page in the book. It’s no more useful than highlighting nothing.

One of the biggest challenges I faced when I left the classroom and entered administration was learning to work with teachers around what would work for them, and not what I would do in any given situation. My style, my way isn’t the right way. It’s just a way. I had a vast instructional toolbox to meet the needs of my students in my teaching style. I had to increase my toolbox to be able to support teachers in their own style of instruction. As I write this, I think I’m in a similar place now with tech tools. I’ve only been on twitter since July, and blogging for an even shorter time. I know how I am learning, and how I want to use Social Media and Web2.0 tools, but I haven’t yet expanded my toolbox enough to have an answer for all of I’m No Good at Technology’s questions to help them feel more comfortable and ready to meaningfully apply tech tools in the classroom.

Here’s what I do know. As a district, we need to rethink how teaching and learning is occurring and we need to be purposeful about the why of technology. To move forward, we need I’m No Good at Technology to engage in the conversation. We need to understand that in the same way it hasn’t been acceptable for me to be Not a Math Person, “technology” is a vital component of teaching and learning. But I have to practice how I speak about tools. I need to practice being more purposeful about why tools are relevant in the context of student learning. As a leader, I need to build a bridge between using Social Media, using Web2.0 tools and the skills students need to be successful in their future. I have to continue to build my own toolbox to speak about these issues more articulately so we can move forward as a district.

Is anyone else having a similar struggle? How are you handling these challenges?

CC Images:

This post cross-posted on the Connected Principals blog

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Hidden Contract of Urban Schools

This week, I read on the TeachPaperless Blog Shelly Blake-Plock’s post entitled "Example of a Paperless Exam". I’ve been reading TeachPaperless for more than a year, and it’s one of my favorite blogs. Shelly has inspired me to significantly decrease my paper usage, but the posts I like the most are the one’s in which he describes what he’s teaching and how he’s assessing learning. I love the exam he offers in this post. It’s a great example of using content to apply skills, rather than the exams I see all the time, which are only assessing content, usually through matching, short answer and fill-in the blanks.

For me this exam exemplifies what I want teaching and learning to become in my district, and it also shines a light on all that is difficult about teaching and learning in an urban district. I work on a campus of high schools. These aren’t schools within a school; they are six distinct high schools, with their own staff, students, leadership and themes. There are about 280 teachers combined across all six schools, and I’m responsible for overseeing curriculum and instruction across the campus. Essentially, I’m a principal without a school, and my responsibility is for teaching and learning. My office is on our campus, so I’m in classrooms, working with principals and connecting with students every day.

We have a few teachers who may want to give an exam like this one, but for most teachers it isn’t something they are considering at all. But it isn’t because they don’t care about kids, or they aren’t good teachers. The context of our school community is so important to understanding the challenges of teaching and learning in city schools. Our students come to us with so much baggage. When I entered high school, I was a sponge. I just wanted to learn everything. I had experienced, good, great and mediocre teachers, but my fundamental belief in school as a positive place was clearly embedded in my psyche.

The average student in my district has had a different experience. He/She reads 3-4 years below grade level. Most ninth graders entering our schools have not experienced success in school. The textbook has been too difficult for as long as they can remember. As Hispanic students, primarily from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, they cannot find themselves in any of the curricula we teach. For the English Language Learners, school has been a confusing mix of academic vocabulary with multiple meanings, and lessons taught from the Speak English Louder School of instruction. A culture of low expectations permeates their school experiences. Students don’t think they’re going to be doctors and lawyers, they think they will be medical technicians and paralegals. Most will be the first in their family to graduate from high school; virtually all will be the first to attend college.

The Hidden Contract dominates decision-making in an urban school. In many schools, the implied contract between teacher and student is the following. You the teacher will agree to not challenge me, force me to work hard, embarrass me, or make me struggle, and I the student will not act out, disrupt the class, embarrass or challenge you in any way. This same contract exists between Principal and Teacher as well. If you the teacher do not disrupt my day, excessively ask for students to be removed from your class, push at what should and should not be taught, then I the principal will support your decisions, evaluate you positively and leave you alone. Essentially, between and among all parties; 
you leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone.

I see these contracts in action every day; passive students, sitting in teacher-directed classrooms, answering lower order questions that challenge no one. Students without pencils or paper, teachers without challenging plans, and everyone surprised if a student, a teacher, or administrator wants or expects more from a class. I understand why classrooms are this way. Students are used to failing. They don’t know what success feels like, and failure is no longer scary or painful, it’s become the norm. Teachers want to connect students with whatever passion it is that brought them to the subject they teach, but they are faced with vast gaps in students’ content knowledge, and so called basic skills are so low. Additionally, the reality of poor standardized test scores causes incredible fear. Each teacher faces incredible pressure to teach to the test to give students the best opportunity to pass and earn their high school diploma.

It is in this reality that I view the great exam that Shelly Blake-Plock offered in his blog. How do we change almost everything about the way teaching and learning occurs to bring us to a place where that exam is the norm, rather than an exam offered in some other school with someone’s else’s kids? Do I show teachers this exam to give them a clear picture of where we want to go? Or, will showing this exam to teachers offer a stark reminder of the Grand Canyon between our schools and his?

Relentlessly attacking this hidden contract is where leadership begins in urban schools. As leaders, my colleagues and I have to grab hold of the hours teachers and students are with us, within our shared walls. Every year during the hype leading up to the Superbowl, I think of leading in an urban school. Coaches must find a way to get their players to ignore the hype. They must keep players away from all the opinions, facts, and beliefs about their team and the game ahead. A Superbowl coach must ensure the players hear his voice above the cacophony of the media and the fans.

It’s the same in an urban school. We must find a way to turn the state standardized test scores, the federal calls for turnaround schools, and the local media attacks into white noise for our teachers. We must protect them, nurture them, cheer for them and create a school where failing at student engagement is okay. Until teachers feel safe to fail at engaging their students, we cannot be successful. We must lead efforts to do the same with our students. Together with our teachers, we must create an environment for our students where their past failures and current struggles are irrelevant to the learning occurring in our classrooms. Teachers must be the eye of the storm in our students’ lives. Together, we must give name, shape, and form to the dreams of the better future our students have, but are afraid to say aloud. And once those dreams are named, we must offer a roadmap to achieving them.

We have so much to overcome. But speaking from my own experience, when urban students engage, when the classroom becomes a door to connecting with the world, and students for a moment, or a period, a week, or a semester, see options and choices in their future, it is a profoundly beautiful experience. Ensuring this occurs for all our students and not just those in one classroom is the challenge I love in the work we do.

If we could find a way to get groups of students to succeed on Shelly’s exam, we would hear the hidden contract of school breaking, like a thousand mirrors crashing to the ground. But to get there, from where we are today, is an incredibly long journey.

So I’m struggling this weekend. How do I use this example exam? I need a way to make it an encouraging discussion. We need teaches to leave the discussion feeling empowered, despite our context. We need to turn the discussion away from the abstract and to the concrete, so new and veteran teachers can feel empowered to shift away from content only classrooms. We need to move beyond drill and kill, to meaningfully connecting our students to the world, and engaging them. We need to give up the standard urban classroom relationship of teacher as all knowing and student as empty vessel to be filled. I see all this and more in this one exam example. But I need to make it accessible to our teachers, so I’m still thinking.

Any suggestions?

CC Images:
Bluebell Railway Luggage by Daves Portfolio
Our Direction by B Tal
32-pl by Zephyrance