Saturday, January 27, 2018

Student Learning: A Reflection

Recently the question came up, 'What is student learning?' I was interested in how my thoughts have morphed since zooming out and gaining perspective in a school leadership role. Here is my reflection on that question.

Learning happens naturally because we want to survive, thrive, and have purpose. Increasing learning requires adding resources as well as a person that values us as individuals and encourages our learning. To expand learning we must design an environment around the student that allows thinking beyond survival. Effective school environments address past and present trauma, meet basic needs, and create a sense of belonging for all students. To further cultivate learning, an effective school environment must support the number one factor in a child’s learning, the teacher. Great teachers work to build relationships with students and learn about their unique gifts and talents. Through learning about their students, a teacher shows them how their individual abilities can be directed towards real world problems. Piquing curiosity, a teacher appropriately challenges students to become better problem solvers, and directs behavior, while guiding social interactions. Exposing students to real world problems, a great teacher will scale these experiences so that students can understand the relevancy of their learning. Upon graduating students will be problem solvers that make our world a better place. Students will learn because they want to do more than just exist. They want to grow and realize how they can have an impact. Leveling the playing field and expanding the reach of learning for all students, takes a great teacher relentlessly cultivating learning who is supported by a great school leader that continually establishes a culture of learning in the school environment.

What is student learning to you? How is it different? How do all of our collective answers to this question help student growth in a school?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Eyes on the Prize When Knee Deep in the Weeds

Referrals are raining down, students are in crisis, families depend on the school as their one stable system, then teacher stress goes up, and 13 year olds have 13 year old sized meltdowns, by the way the bathroom is overflowing and it all flows into your school data.  We see it in academics, attendance, and suspension days.

Through it all I have one-on-one conversations with students all day, every day in my office, the hallways, and classrooms due to a variety of behaviors that all mostly stem from one main problem.  Traditional middle school as it is with traditional structures, lessons, and teachers do not work for all students.  That being said, do students need to learn to do things when they don't want to? Yes. Do they need to learn appropriate outlets for anger and appropriate ways to solve conflicts? Yes.  And so, I suspend students out of school because we can't put hands on each other to try and solve problems or current student behavior is a danger to themselves or others.  These are the very students that are not feeling valued, or a part of a community, or like they have to prove something to be something.  As I walk a student on suspension to the exit I ask them, "What more could we have done?"  Most often their answer is, "nothing." because they don't know school any other way, they just know that right now, their behavior doesn't fit.  Even with their answer, I wonder what would have happened if there was a better adult relationship for that student in school.  I wonder what would have happened if the lesson in class didn't leave that student with idle hands or idle thoughts.  I wonder what would have happened if the student had been so engaged in the lesson that it required them to stop focusing on the negative words of someone else.  I wonder what would have happened if that student had school work they could be proud of instead of being proud that they got the jump on someone.

Don't let the weeds make you forget  
what school should, and could be.

It is easy to push those questions to the side because there is always the next situation/crisis/student/family/teacher in need.  Lately, I have been letting those questions linger.  To begin to answer them requires me knowing the type of school I am aiming for.  I want a school with high attendance because students want to consistently be there.  They want to be there because they feel like a valued part of the community.  We show value to students when we give them meaningful work, and when we show interest in them as the potential world changers that they are.  Days get busy and if we let ourselves we can fill every minute of everyday maintaining the current structure that does not work for all students.  We can easily occupy ourselves by continuing to pound square pegs into round holes.  OR We can do the work while doing something everyday that begins to shape the school around the small humans that attend.  This week I want to start doing home visits to students that I have sent home on multiple days of suspension because I need to do a better job of helping those students feel valued instead of rejected. We cannot stop doing the work.  The need is too great.  At the same time, we have to keep our eyes on the prize when we are knee deep in the weeds.  Don't let the weeds make you forget what school should, and could be.  We have to let our visions of what school should be shape our decisions in the everyday work.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Use your door

Let's just cut to the chase.  Things are crazy right now.  With the recent election and the increased divisiveness that it has caused, coupled with wounds from racial tensions that still exist in our city, conditions are primed for separateness and fear.  
Several years ago I was feeling down and beginning to doubt myself with the lack of encouragement or buy-in I was getting from other teachers and administrators on new grading practices I was trying.  I was explaining this to a more veteran teacher that I respect, and I will never forget what he told me.  He said, "Patrick, you know your classroom has a door right?  Sounds like you need to close it and get to work".  Sometimes the best tool in classrooms and schools to maintain a positive culture is the door.
Much of the time we are encouraged to bring the outside in, listen to all channels and take in new ideas, to stay relevant, and create global classrooms.  This week there were students in my school coming into school extremely upset because they afraid of their families being deported.  Racial slurs and prejudice talk increased as students saw it modeled more.  These are times to close the door.  Inside our schools and classrooms we GET to decide what words and actions are acceptable.  We can choose to create an environment that encourages forward thinking and discourages fear and hate.  If the personal identities of our students are threatened and ideals are encroached on we have to pull the drawbridge up, protect what we have, and discourage what threatens. Current state of things are a mess and kids are coming into schools with real fears.  Good news!  We are the gatekeepers.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Next Chapter

Ten years ago I started teaching middle school science.  This school year will be different.  On July 22nd I will begin a new position as the Assistant Principal of Ritenour Middle School.  Yesterday I put the physical stuff that I will take with me from my classroom in one box.  I'm preparing to leave the classroom where I have spent 20,000+ hours guiding, motivating, and preparing kids to be problem solvers, and encouraging them to be the best version of themselves. For those of you that do not know where Ritenour is, it is North St. Louis County, neighbor to Ferguson.  Yes, that Ferguson. Which also means my school demographic is changing a lot too.  I am going to be part of one of the most diverse districts in the state. Yes, this is on purpose, and I love it!

Reactions have been: Why would you do this?  Wow.  Really?! Congratulations! No... What will we do?! Sorry to lose you.  Sad kids learning they will not have me as their teacher.  Happy for you... and a host of other body language that cannot be expressed in words.  Some of these reactions come from my move from teaching to administration, some come from leaving Webster, others come from a perception of where I am going.

Leaving the classroom the guilt is real for me.  When we say yes to one thing we say no to another.  It's hard for me to say no to the time in the classroom as a teacher because I have and I do enjoy it.  I can try explaining that I will be in classrooms and I will be interacting with kids.  The reality of that is it will look very different.

This move is very much on purpose.  This is not an error or mistake.  I do at some point want to be a principal and I get to choose where and how I learn to take on that role.  I've been in a more rural district which had unique problems. I've been in an affluent district which had unique problems (yes, privilege can be a problem). I will now be in a district where many students come to school with a higher level of needs.  What I've found interesting so far is that all three districts I have been a part of have similar problems but in a school district where student scores are higher no one asks questions and the problems hide underneath the high academic achievement of the students.  No surprise, I like being part of schools that are hungry for change.  The "Why" supporting the action is built into these schools.

I wish there was another term for assistant principal.  We all bring images of what an assistant principal is and is not.  We have experiences as students, teachers, and even from pop culture that feed our perception of what an assistant principal is.  I will be carving out my own version of assistant principal with the roles and responsibilities that I have been given.

What will I be doing?  Of course school discipline is the first thing people think of, so yes I will be teaching more social behavior than I ever have before to people that have more hormones than they know what to do with.  I get to shape the behavior that is valued in my school.  I'll also be evaluating teachers, which to me means empowering and equipping teachers to reach the next level of success with their students.  I have been tasked with guiding building professional development.  My interpretation of that is I will have an opportunity to impact the greatest factor in student success, teachers.  I still love supporting people's interests and passions.  I still love helping people uncover their strengths and find the best version of themselves.  How I do that will look different this year.  I am SUPER excited to begin this next chapter in my career.  Let's get to it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Clouds and Dirt: Edu Style

You've heard it before, on the internet, or in the meeting last week.  The educators who have grand ideas on what education should be or could be.  Yet some of these same educators have little (if any) evidence of taking action, or even how to take action.  They spend too much time in the clouds because they are primarily thinkers.

On the flip side you have people in the grind working every second of every day.  These are some of the most work efficient educators you know.  They are not continually thinking with others and not taking time to reflect because that would be a waste of time.  These people will complain about funding, how the systems traps them, and how curriculum and testing dictates their classroom.  You may hear them say things like "wish I had time for that" or "When can I get back to my classroom?".  They spend too much time in the dirt because they are the hustlers.

Then there is the middle.  The middle is the minutia that we all get caught up in.  Spinning and getting nowhere, working but gaining nothing.  This is the details that really don't matter.  These things we can outsource to technology, have others maintain, problems we can prevent, or may not really be important at all.  Too much time and energy is spent here.  If we spent time in the clouds thinking of a better system and spent time in the dirt making it happen the middle would take care of itself.

After school yesterday I got to spend time with people who do an amazing job finding the balance between the clouds and dirt in our grading for learning meetup.  People in this meeting are fed up with the way grading is traditionally done and have ideas in the clouds on how to make it better for the kids in their classroom with their content.   Equally important, and just as inspiring, was seeing examples of how these teachers are in the dirt making it happen because they have been able to see what is good for kids they get after it in their classroom however they can.  There is no one way to get after it and if you spend too much time thinking about it you won't actually do anything.  These teachers are doing what they can with where they are to make grading better.  The people in this group push the edges on the clouds and the dirt.  Balance between these happens when someone knows the things they are best at that only they can do, and spends time doing those things.

As I've said before I enjoy drawing on ideas of entrepreneurs and showing how they apply to education.  The concepts of "clouds and dirt" are no exception.  This verbiage came from Gary Vaynerchuck.  Check out his video on it below.  

(Warning:  do not watch in a classroom full of kids he does drop a few choice words)  

Thank you Gary for putting out content that makes me think. Thank you teachers in my grading for learning meetup for modeling great thinking and great action. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Make May your September

That thing that you want to try in your classroom but you haven't told anyone yet.  You should do that.  If it's good for kids.  DO IT NOW.  You want to do it because you know it is best for kids and it is engaging/fun/motivating/etc.  There are at least as many excuses to not do it as there are days left in the school year.  I'll tackle three that I think are most common for this time of year.

Well it's May, I'll just try it next year:

This is a common thought right now, Why?  next year is not going to change whether or not it's good for kids.  What you are saying is 'I know this is good, but I'm not going to do this good thing with the kids that are in front of me.'  Part of the reason we say no to something right now is because our energy is low.  That's real.  We've been going at it since August and when you can see the end it's hard to maintain or increase your energy.  I know that in my classroom I am the pacer.  If I slow down, they will to.  If I am looking around and saying "why aren't they working?" I have no one to blame but myself.  "Well they (students) are just done so..." No, you are just done so your kids stopped when you stopped.  They will match my stride and if I'm not careful or intentional with them at this time of year we will end up like it's a walk in the park rather than a race to the end.  A walk in the park finish is fine if that is what you are planning on.  If you want to finish strong you have to mentally tell yourself to increase your turnover at the end of the race.

Last night on the phone I got to help Cori (who I met through my PLN... yesterday) figure out how to use Google Forms and Sheets to have 150 kids select a certain number session slots that interest to them, email them their chosen schedule, and send attendance rosters to teachers.  She is planning a day for kids to choose what they want to learn about in MAY!  This requires teachers to switch and prepare and as teachers get excited about it so will kids.  Cori is hustler that saw something that was good for kids and went after it. Make May your September.  Cori, you are the inspiration for my writing this morning.  Thank you!

 Kids can be excited about learning in May if you give them the opportunity and model the energy.

We don't really have time to gain traction on it so...

What a great time!  If it fails, guess what the school year ends and you get a fresh start in August.  You don't even have time to deal with the consequences of your failure. Prototype that strategy now so that you can work out the kinks with kids you know and have spent all year building relationships with.  Your next year kids will thank you if you get out the rough draft done and out now rather than making them the rough draft.  If you are going to fail (and you will in some ways) make it with 18 days left

It's not ready yet, it doesn't look the way I want it to:

 6 years ago standing in line for the bathroom at the start of the Boston Marathon there was a guy who was freaking out because his GPS watch was not working.  As he was freaking out this zen looking runner dude with a yoga mat under his arm turns to freak-out-GPS-man and says "analysis leads to paralysis".  I'll never forget this because Zen-runner-guy is right.  If you spend your time analyzing, 'is this right? will it work?' You will never get in the right head space to pull the trigger. There comes a point where momentum is the priority over planning.  Your continuing to plan and tweak may really just be a mask for fear.  Fear is real.  It's a risk.  Own it and lean forward into it. Accept that the first time you try______________ will be the worst and move on because what do you have to lose?  It's May!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Good Teachers are Good Entrepreneurs.

This idea has been melding for a while.  Upon getting into Twitter and reading the book Switch years ago I've been periscope up for successful programs and people because I will steal like an artist.  Let's be honest that's where the real Art and Science of Teaching comes into play.  Marzano your chapters have great questions, but I could answer all of them by saying "I will steal ideas from others".  Every classroom/business/establishment that I go into I am thinking 'what in here is going to make my classroom/school/district better?'  When you can look at the world around you (not necessarily your school) and say 'yeah I need more of that in my classroom'  AND THEN YOU GO MAKE IT HAPPEN, (because who cares about the idea if it doesn't hit the classroom floor with real kids...execute) Then you are an entrepreneurial teacher.  

Traits of a good entrepreneur and how they transfer to good teaching.  Traits are taken from this random Forbes article which is probably not the best source...but i'm going for it.

1. Resiliency. Will you stay the course when Johnny-needs-attention is out to get attention in all the wrong ways?  Will you maintain learning in your classroom even when adults outside of your classroom seemed to have lost their minds?  You get to have your classroom and you get to decide what goes on in those four walls.

2. Focus.  What is really important?  What are the things that only you can do?  Put time and attention on those things.  There are a LOT of things throughout the day that put up billboards for your attention.  Decide early in the day what you will focus on and what has to be done.  Then, get after it.

3.  Invest for the long-term.  This is true in relationships.  You're not going to win every student in your class every day all day.  Be patient, care about them enough to correct them, believe in the best version of them.  This is also true in your strategies.  Try something new in class but don't give up on it when the wireless didn't work or the transition sucked.  Failure happens.  Learn, be patient, and make it better next class.  

4.  Find and manage people.  I don't pick my students, they appear.  I do pick who I am going to be influenced by today and how much they are going to influence me.  Find those people carefully.  Manage the smaller people in your classroom.  Differentiate the amount of structure you put in place for them.  Communicate direction clearly.  Give feedback on what is important.  Use technology tools when they make sense. 

5.  Sell.  Everyone is in sales.  Don't believe me?  Go read, Dan Pink, To Sell is Human. 

Ever tried to convince a 13 year old that something is important, or get everyone pumped for the last project of the year?  You are selling.  

Ever tried to write a grant and convey your idea as innovative?  You are selling.  Get better at storytelling and you'll get better at selling.  Good teachers are master sellers.

6. Learn.  Do you really think you are the best teacher right now?  Do you really think there are teachers in your building you can't learn nothing from?  Excuse me but, your pride is showing and it is so massive that it's getting in the way of your learning. Bummer.  Make a choice to learn more, and learn faster.  If you choose not to learn you will be the chump in 10 years who is still claiming their unchanged PowerPoint as "using tech in the classroom."  This is malpractice... 

7. Self-reflection. Are you your toughest critic?  If not, find someone who is and take time to look back and improve so you can look forward.  If you are always spinning, you are missing this.  Not reflecting will waste the failures, and poorly capitalize on wins.

8. Self-reliance:  "Well I would love to use that tool to teach I just haven't recieved PD on it... "   seriously?  "received it"?  Like in a present under the Christmas Tree? I am sad for those people.  Did you need PD on using Facebook?  Did you need PD on playing  You will learn what you want to learn, and make time for what you want to make time for.  If you want to learn from the best teachers DO IT.  We get to teach in an age where you can just go do that.  Start following them on Twitter, go listen to their podcasts, better yet contact them yourself and set up a time to talk.  They are putting their stuff out there for you to steal and use tomorrow.  Own it, re-mix it, and make it happen for your kids in your classroom.  No one else will.

GRIT- The all encompassing entrepreneurial characteristic these students had to demonstrate to get their project to work

What entrepreneurial leaders do I dig on right now?  People like Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Dave Ramsey.  Oh, and check out the Ramsey EntreLeadership Podcast, so much learning there. 

Good teachers are good entrepreneurs.