Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Grit or Slack? Are We Asking the Right Questions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Where We Are: We Need More Consequences

The second semester started this week at our school. As I write this post, more than 50% of all students at each grade level are failing one or more classes. That’s an outrageous number. I’m appalled at that failure rate. But it speaks to one of the traps that exist in inner city schools. It’s the clean, quiet, and safe trap. Students, parents, teachers, and principals all fall into the trap of believing that a clean, quiet, and safe school means it’s a good school. Unfortunately, that’s where the bar is set for a school like ours; clean, quiet, and safe.

I don’t want to belittle those three indicators, because to be honest, we haven’t always been all three. It’s taken an incredible amount of hard work from my teachers and from me to get us to the point where we can call ourselves clean, quiet, and safe. Some city school communities call clean, quiet, and safe a win. For me, it represents the floor-the minimum expectation we must have to ensure the conditions exist for our students to learn.

Back to the failures. I’m working with my teachers to help them understand that we need serious interventions to decrease our astronomical failure rate. I’ll write about why so many students are failing in another post. Most of my teachers have come to the understanding that we need an extended day for many of our students to give them the instructional support they need. So last week, we were discussing an after-school intervention program.  One of my teachers said, “We need real consequences for students who don’t show up to the after-school intervention program.” We were in the midst of a brainstorm, so there wasn’t really an opportunity to discuss the statement, but it was clear from body language and the nodding, that many, maybe most, of my staff agreed with the statement.

I should say that it’s rare for a student to fail only one course at our school. Students either pass everything, or fail multiple courses. Rarely is a student only failing one class. So all these students who need interventions are already on track to be retained; some of them for the second and third time. Retention for some of these students means dropping out. I don’t have the data in front of me, but the reality is sixteen year olds who haven’t yet made it out of ninth grade are extremely unlikely to graduate from high school. Yet some of my team believe we need more consequences if the students don’t show up for help and support.

The truth is we need the opposite of consequences. We need our students to feel more cared for than they have ever felt before. We need them to believe with all their hearts that this time will actually be different than all the other times they’ve failed. We need hope, and we need to nourish and care for that hope for our students, until they can carry that hope on their own without fear of losing it. Consequences? Not a chance. Hope, support, and more opportunities to learn is what we have to provide.

But we don’t really know how to as a team...yet. Some of my teachers can offer hope on their own. But we don’t know how to work together as a school community to offer students hope...yet.

I do understand where my teacher and those who agreed are coming from. My teachers try not to be, but sometimes they are angry with our students. My teachers are working incredibly hard. Frankly, they are working much harder than the students. But the staff doesn’t see the results they expect from the work they believe they put in. “I taught it, they didn’t learn it” is a blog post unto itself. But sometimes I can see my teachers’ perspective. I don’t aways agree with it, but I understand where they are coming from. The teachers choose to come to this environment each and every day. Most pour their hearts and souls into their teaching; in the best way they know how, if not always the most effective way. And the students aren’t learning. Another common inner-city experience, or maybe it’s a common experience when working with teenagers, is to hear, “I didn’t fail the class. S/he failed me.” But it doesn’t always come out using those words. In our environment it’s often said with yelling, and cursing, and extreme anger. So my teachers get angry too. And the result is a belief that we need order and more consequences, because we will show those students that even if they pretend not to care if they are passing, we’ll find something, anything to punish them with, to make sure they care. Especially because I'm not going to work this hard, and have students show me they don't care.

Clean, quiet, and safe. It’s so much easier to measure our success based on those indicators and not on learning. But then we fail our kids. And in our school, when our students fail, are retained over and over again, or simply don’t learn; it dooms them to a life of poverty. Clean, quiet, and safe have to be our minimum set of expectations. 

Tomorrow, we’ll meet again as a staff and I’ll lead a discussion about instructional interventions, learning, and about hope. We won’t be talking about more consequences.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Where We Are: How Would You Start?

Context Building:

I have so much trouble blogging. It’s never about making the time, or not having anything to say. I’ve said in this space before that it’s so difficult to frame the day to day reality of my inner city school, in this incredibly positive blogosphere. But over Winter Break, Bo Adams, on his thoughtful blog “It’s about Learningwrote on December 30, 2013, a process post about homework. Bo asked for my feedback on his post, which I gladly offered and I’ve been reading the responses and thinking about the post ever since.

What got me thinking the most was and is that Bo uses his blog to think aloud, wonder, and ask questions. It’s clear to me that a blog ought to be used for just that purpose. But I’ve never done that. I’ve shared and wondered for sure, but I haven’t opened the doors to my practice, the struggles I face daily and the challenges I face in trying to move teaching and learning forward at our school.

So here goes; I’m giving it a shot. I’m hoping some of Bo's commenters will choose to respond to this post and continue the conversation we started over on It's About Learning, but this time for my context.

The Goal:

Bo framed an “Option 2” Homework assignment in his post. (Reprinted here with permission from Bo)
  • EQ: What is beauty?
  • Observe: As you go through the next 10 days, record in your observation journal instances of your thinking related to our current priority essential question. If appropriate and responsible, take pictures of things you find beautiful and make some notes about why. Ask others what they think, too. Because we are near the beginning of this experience together, I can suggest that the VTR (visible thinking routine) “See, Think, Wonder” might be one way to frame your ethnography notes. Of course, you can devise your own strategy (and you’ll be asked to do this more and more as you practice your Innovators DNA skills); if I, or some other mentor/peer, can help with your observation-strategy plan, let me/them know. Ask questions. We’ll share and review our “Game Plans” and “Gantt Charts” in two days, so we can see various strategies and plans.
  • Question:
    • Record the questions that arise for you as you detail your observations. I don’t want to overly constrain your thinking by suggesting specifics now, but let someone know if you feel yourself in some unresolved struggle about “What kinds of questions should be arising for me?”
    • In relation to your subject-organized classes, tag at least some of your questions by the department name(s) for which those questions seem particularly connected. For example, “What percentage of the population finds this painting beautiful?” might suggest a “Math” tag for a statistics portion of your emerging project.
  • Experiment:
    • Of course, you’ll be experimenting with your observation-strategy plan.
    • Also, use your observation notes to scan for trends and patterns. What hypotheses on beauty seem to emerge for you? Begin to outline – in big-picture terms – the experimental methods you might use to test your hypotheses. If it helps, pretend you are on staff with Myth Busters, like we’ve talked about during our f2f time together.
  • Network & Associate:
    • Suggestion 1 (if needed) – read and comment on the observation-journal entries posted by some of the others in this learning cohort.
    • Suggestion 2 (if needed) – find connections in your independent reading and link to nodes in your learning web on this EQ.
    • Suggestion 3 (if needed) – explore the playlist “6 TED Talks on beauty” and/or listen to the TED Radio Hour episode “What is beauty?
    • What are your suggestions regarding networking and associating with this EQ?
I love the assignment, and agree wholeheartedly that this is the type of meaningful, thoughtful, and purposeful work I’d like our Design Lab students to be doing.
Our Current Reality:
Here’s a worksheet that one of our teachers assigned before break. It’s not an example of every assignment we give; there are certainly instances of dynamic teaching and learning. But it isn’t an outlier assignment either. We give this assignment, and others like it to 16 year olds at our school all the time. This is both an example of class work and an example of homework.
The Task:

We need to move our instructional practices from the lessons that lead to this worksheet to the lessons that result in Bo's assignment. Some of my teachers are willing to take the necessary steps. Others are unsure if instructional changes need to occur, and if they must occur, what those changes ought to be. I’m not sure how many steps there are between where we are and where we need to be; but it’s a lot. I have a great staff. They care about kids, they want students to learn. Where we are pedagogically is simply our starting point.
Many of the conversations I see and experience on twitter are about who should be leading learning in a school. Should teachers lead learning? Should the principal? I see conversations about trusting adults and students and conversations about everyone’s potential. Here’s our reality; We don’t have a team of people to support our efforts to improve teaching and learning at our school. We don't have a Curriculum Leader, a Chief Innovation Officer, or even Lead Teachers. I drive the instructional agenda because I have the most experience with what instructional can and should look like in school to support meaningful student learning. We need change to occur. But that's hard to do when my team doesn't always know what change should look and feel like. It’s hard to get to “Option 2” when my teachers have never been in a school, where “Option 2” is considered.
I’d love some suggestions about what you would do first, and then next, and again after that. So blogosphere...please help me to think this through. Help me set the professional learning agenda. The goal is the consistent implementation of homework assignments like Bo’s exemplar. The starting point is the worksheet above.
What are Steps 1,2, and 3, and 17? How do you build instructional practices, culture and belief towards wanting to give assignments like Bo’s Option 2?
What would you do to support both teacher and student learning if you were headed to our school on Monday?