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....


  1. I talk big but I know so little. I've experienced some and have picked up hints on other. I was a teaching assistant for 5 years outside of Milwaukee. I'm from Toledo. I can see the problems and the disconnect between folks that don't think it's their problem & the societal problems leading to that mindset. In truth, you're in the front of the tsunami wave we're all in, except the top 2%. We all need to decide our real intentions & if it's the status quo we all better run to our caves because that's where we're heading. I still have hope. I will try what I can. Do you connect with #HipHopEd @fastcrayon @TheJLV @ShanaVWhite @Jess5th Some UK people I like include @TheHopefulHT @KalwantBhopal @SchoolMentalHealth. I know it's probably not what you need, but it might be a start. I think you're doing something incredible.

  2. Susan,

    Thanks so much for reading. I appreciate your willingness to engage around these tough topics. Thanks again!