Monday, January 31, 2011

Educon Reflections from an Inner City Administrator

I just returned from my first Educon experience. The sessions and panels were great, but what I really loved was watching and listening to the SLA students. My tour guide on Friday, the educoncierge, the coat check team, and food crew were all passionate about their Educon role. They were so invested in ensuring that Educon went smoothly, and their enthusiasm and ownership of the conference offered insight into one of the contributing factors towards SLA’s success. The kids just know they can do it. It doesn’t really matter what the “it” is. The culture of SLA is such that whatever needs to be done, or whatever students want to do can be done. I think if Chris Lehmann met with his students today and said he intends to hold Educon 2.4 on the moon, the students would smile and say, “Let’s get to it.” In inner-city schools, we often pay lip service to this ideology. But believing that all kids can do “it” and living that belief are not synonymous. The SLA kids were inspirational. The challenge to change this culture in my district is daunting.

SLA is certainly different than high schools in my district. We serve 3,000 students across six high schools. We accept everyone; whether they arrive on the first day of school or the 101st. Our average student is 2-3 years below grade level in Reading and Mathematics. Virtually all of our students will be the first in their family to graduate high school and attend college. 85% of our students speak a language other than English at home, and each year, we enroll about 250 students who are new arrivals to the country without any English skills. These students never enroll at the start of the school. More often than not, they enroll now, and figuring out how to integrate new, English Language Learners is an incredible challenge for teachers. My experience as an educator is certainly different than what educators experience at SLA.

But we have so much to learn from SLA. Instead of infusing our culture with living/breathing evidence that all our students can accomplish whatever they set they minds to, we spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on issues outside of our control. Our students do live in poverty. Most do work to help support their families, leaving less time for homework. Most of our students’ parents are working several minimum wage jobs and are not available or because of the language barrier are not comfortable engaging with teachers and the school. This is our reality. I thought about these truths during the Design Thinking: 21st Century Skills for the Real World session I attended. The facilitators asked us to think about problem solving as a call to action. We applied the Design process of Discovery >Define > Brainstorm> Prototype >Test. I think the hardest part of this process is meaningfully defining the problem. In every school I’ve been in, this step is a battle. We often jump right to solutions, without really taking the time to define our actual problem. What if we did this? What if you tried that? We focus so many of our solutions on the problems we really can’t control, like the socio-economic factors listed above. This session re-emphasized for me the need to focus our efforts on what is in our control. We can’t always fix what happens before and after school in our students’ lives. But we can develop stronger problem solving skills and apply them to the issues of improving school structures and teaching and learning in our classrooms.

The panel on Friday night offered a nice link to many of the struggles we face. The Ben Franklin quote about the immovable, movable, and those that move is a nice statement reflecting a city school reality. Making change, real change in the inner city, feels like trying to move a mountain. We push at it daily, and even though we leave each day absolutely exhausted, we wonder if we moved anything at all. In that context, I loved what Trung Le had to say about creating a new language for school design. The word School carries such a negative connation for our students and their parents. I grew up on a college campus, with two educators for parents. All I’ve ever known is school, and it’s such a joyous, safe and engaging place for me. But not for everyone, and certainly not for the students and parents in my district.

The same is true for the word Classroom. Today, in some city classrooms, the word is about power, not learning. As the adult, I have control here, you will learn what I say, and you will follow my rules. Economically, our nation cannot afford to have so many city/minority students dropping out. We need to redefine school and its’ associated vocabulary to achieve different results. After hearing Trung Le, I’m even more convinced we need to change the language we use to define these walls, if we want different results.

I loved the Project-Based Learning in a Math Classroom Conversation. Two SLA students, Taylor and DaVonte, spoke eloquently about their math projects and their ownership of their own learning. Interestingly, some of the discussion mirrored conversations we have in my district. If we use PBL, don’t we also have to teach content and basic skills separately? I hear this regularly. Teachers say to me they can offer a good project, once their students’ basic skills are better. Students are so far behind, we can’t possibly get to the point where we will apply math until much later in the course. As I see it, we teach basic math concepts to struggling students year after year. If it were going to work, wouldn’t it have worked already?

Taylor and Davonte’s voices were so powerful on this topic. Gently, but firmly, they told participants they were thinking about teaching and math learning incorrectly. DaVonte explained his points about math content by pointing to the content embedded in his project. Taylor finally said to us, “It would be much harder to remember an equation, than to remember the project I use the equation in. I can just look up the equation, I remember projects I did, not the equation on its own.” It was fascinating to watch a few participants try to impose their personal biases about math instruction on these two students, but no matter what was said, the students wouldn’t waver in their beliefs about how and what they are learning. I walked away from that conversation trying to find another way to enter the PBL dialogue with our teachers.

I enjoyed the Connected Principals conversation, but I left wanting more. Thanks to Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal) I’ve been on twitter since July. I have this blog, but I’m struggling to write regularly and find my voice in the blogosphere. I love #edchat, #cpchat, and the Connected Principals site. But my city colleagues and I just aren’t represented in what’s out there currently. I find it be lonely to be a leader in a district, where very few people think as I do. I’m contributing to moving the mountain each day, with almost no one to connect with face to face. I use Social Media to connect with like-minded people, but also to find ideas I can’t imagine yet. I love the feeling of reading a blog or seeing a tweet that sharpens my own thinking or introduces me to something entirely new. But the chaos of inner-city schools can be overwhelming. For many of us, the day, every day, happens to us. If more city administrators are going to participate in Connected Principals, we need our experiences to be represented there.

Since I’ve already written plenty, here are just a few other bulleted thoughts:

  • I really liked Bill Fitgerald’s (@funnymonkey) thinking about crowd sourcing the death of the textbook. It seems to me that city schools are the perfect place to try his ideas. We don’t have enough money and not buying textbooks would be great. Plus creating culturally relevant resources at appropriate reading levels will help student learn. A challenge though is this; everyone thinks they are an education expert because everyone went to school. We’re all used to having a textbook as the course anchor. How do we change this extremely traditional mindset? It seems like city schools would be the perfect place to make inroads.
  • I loved what Stanford Thompson had to say. In city districts, we live in such fear of being labeled a failing school because of low standardized test scores. To hear that playing music in an ensemble is improving attendance, learning, behavior, and engagement is so heartening. Now how do I get his program here?
  • I loved meeting people whose ideas I read and value. It was great to put actual faces with avatars and to meet new people. Whenever I go to a party and people find out I’m an inner-city educator, the reaction I get most often is surprise. I seem smart and nice, why can’t I get a better job? I didn’t feel this at Educon. The people I follow on twitter and through RSS are so different from those I interact with daily. Our experiences, in some cases, couldn’t be more divergent. But we can all still learn from each other. For many of you, your schools work as they should. We’re not where you are yet, and we don’t always want to get to your destination. But I have hope that your ideas and actions will help move us forward too. I’ll be sure to return to Educon next year to challenge your thinking and my own. I just hope I can bring a few of my colleagues with me.


  1. Eric - It was great to meet you at educon! I appreciate your thoughts here. I think it is wonderful that you are adding your voice to the edublogosphere. You bring a different and very important perspective. It may not be fully appreciated among your colleagues, but it is certainly appreciated by the rest of us. Don't be afraid to represent.

    I am mightily struggling to compose my own reflection. I'm not sure why I'm having such a hard time. Hopefully, it will come together soon.

  2. It was great reading your thoughts here, Eric. You can count me in for next year's Educon.

    Jill Geiser

  3. I am hoping that you can get more of that voice with Connected Principals. I think that would be huge for the school administrator community and we can all learn from each other.

  4. Eric,
    Great meeting you at EduCon, and wonderful reading your reflections. Wish I'd caught the PBL in a Math Classroom conversation (but thanks to your post, I feel as if I did). Curious to hear your response to Linda Nathan's suggestion on Sunday, that math is THE place to introduce real-world challenges.
    Thanks for the good conversation.

  5. Eric,

    I am glad that we met this weekend. I am eager to hear more from you about the issues that you face and that we all face. I know that Connected Principals will be richer if it includes your voice.


  6. Eric-- Sorry for delay, this Mexico trip is a bear.

    It was terrific getting to know you this weekend at Educon-- and I am so delighted to be welcomed to your blog here at Growing Good Schools. You were holding out on us, not telling us about your blog before.

    I quoted you several times in my own post, so that is in part my response to this valuable piece.

    I love what you wrote about the term classroom and the power dynamics inherent therein. We could really do a major Foucauldian number on the classroom, couldn't we. That would be a blog post!

    PBL in the math classroom-- what a mistake I made, huge, in not attending that. It is really great to get your appreciation of it.

    And yes, we need more voices from urban administration, and change begins with ourselves. lead and others will follow!

    Look forward to many, many more conversations, ftf and online.