15 April 2015

The Whole Child's in Their Hands

The unofficial theme of this year's ASCD annual conference was accountability. With new tests rolling out across the US this year, the possible reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a/k/a "No Child Left Behind"), and continuing focus on teacher and principal evaluation, it's no wonder that accountability is on the minds of every educator. It's a difficult balancing act in public education, however, because of all of the voices that play a role: parents, students, teachers, administrators, district/state/federal officials, communities, and so on. Accountability looks different through all of those lenses. I know that many teachers feel that they are caught in the middle at times.

One session I attended had a series of Ignite presentations around the theme of accountability. One of the presenters implored us to "wholed" her accountable...meaning that we shouldn't limit our judgement of a school to test scores. And while I agree in principle---schools are worth more than annual test---having worked outside of a classroom, I could quickly see how this could backfire. I could easily imagine all of the new reports that would be required for student health, community engagement, and so on. We have to be careful what we wish for, educators.

However, each year one school is selected for the Whole Child Vision in Action award. This year, Magnolia Elementary School of Joppa, Md., led by Patricia Mason, received this honor. Schools that participate in the whole child initiative focus on ensuring that every child learns about a healthy lifestyle, has a safe place to learn, is engaged with learning both in and out of the classroom, has a system of support, and is challenged academically.

I am inspired every year by the award winners. They have a sort of magic---one that cannot be replicated, and maybe not even repeated from year to year---but for a moment in time, they have everyone and everything moving in a significant and positive direction. You can read more about the specifics of their school in the press release from ASCD.

I spoke with the principal and three of the teachers over breakfast one morning. This is the third time that I've had this sort of opportunity and if I could boil down what all of these schools have in common, it would be "Everyone does whatever it takes to focus on students." Too simplistic? Maybe. But it's not just pockets of teachers in a school doing good things. It's all of the teachers...and paraeducators...and secretarial/custodial/food services staff...and administrators. It's students reaching out to parents to bring them to the school. This is no small task. Teachers step up into leadership roles. Principals create the conditions that allow teachers to take on this responsibility and authority.

Something else I've noticed is that these schools don't get caught up in all of the trends. Yes, they pay attention to requirements and test scores, but none of them are active on social media or tricked out with technology. Magnolia only had wifi access points installed the week before they came to Houston. Money, time, and energy all go toward taking care of students and teachers.

Congratulations to Magnolia Elementary!

12 April 2015

Get Real: Passion for the Classroom

I like to believe that all educators are passionate about students, learning, and good instruction. These factors reveal themselves in different ways. I've seen teachers in "supersmall" districts---ones where there are only two teachers---who drive the bus, feed students (because there is no meal program), and be the heartbeat of their community. I've watched teachers in larger districts collaborate with their peers on a regular basis to engage in reflective practice. I regularly read blog posts by teachers from all over the world who share their triumphs and struggles as they work to continually improve their practice on behalf of their students. And, I see it shared at conferences and workshops, too.

At the recent ASCD annual conference, I sat in on two presentations in particular that showed passion for educators at an entirely different level---one which not only conveyed their heart for the work, but inspired and sparked commitment. One was by Dr. Robyn Jackson and the other by Regie Routman.

I read Jackson's Never Work Harder than Your Students five or six years ago and then met her at an ASCD author's event two years ago. (I did get to see her at a similar event last month.) However, this was the first time that I've seen her present. Her topic was "Failing Up." Here was the session description: What do you do when your students are caught in a free fall of failure? How do you help them learn from failure? How do you motivate students who have failed so much they've given up? Learn how to turn failure into a valuable learning experience. Discover specific ways to help students develop resilience, take risks in the classroom, and try, along with practical strategies for turning failures into powerful learning experiences that builds students’ motivation and grit. And while the session was well-paced and the ideas solid, it was her practitioner's stance that struck me. To be sure, she is no longer in the classroom, but I had no trouble visualizing her there...her quiet resolve and unwaivering faith in students' abilities at the center of every move she made. I also appreciated her sense of humanity. It would be easy for her to focus on the success stories, but she shared difficult moments and also very personal stories. This lack of hubris makes the strategies she provides feel much more attainable---that it is not an expert preaching a gospel, but someone that you would have appreciated in the classroom next to you. Someone who shows up each day ready to give it their best.

I had not seen Regie Routman present until last month, either. Years ago, I read her Teaching Essentials book and I remember being struck by her plain talk. There's not a lot of that in education. We like big ideas. We like to dream big. But there aren't a lot of people who work side-by-side with teachers and students who clearly state what the job is and that you need to get it done. I didn't get to talk with her much at the author's event this year, but looking back through Ye Olde Blog, I see that a commenter here in 2011 said that Regie's presentation moved her to tears. I didn't have quite the same visceral reaction to the message, but I will say that she is different from every other expert I've seen in action. The difference is that Routman conducts her work as residencies in schools. She doesn't just tell you what to do, she comes to your school and teaches in your classrooms so you can watch. Instead of a formal presentation, she has hundreds of photographs of student work and video clips of her conferencing with teachers and students with one goal in mind: making literacy the center of classroom learning. She creates and supports sustainable change in schools. Her focus is on the joy that is part of learning---not focusing on a deficit model of what students can't do, but using effort and persistence to help students move forward. Her new book, Read, Write, Lead, is a rich source that reflects her depth of knowledge in the field of literacy, as well as her core beliefs about classrooms and student learning. I have not finished reading it yet---it's so dense with ideas that I am taking in bits and pieces for my mind to "digest" before going back for additional helpings. If you work in a K - 8 classroom, and especially if you are a principal for those grades, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.

What made these two authors, educators, and presenters different for me was that they weren't in the room to sell anything. They were there to communicate, to reflect, to engage with a community of other practitioners. They didn't try to package and sell the golden bullet. Instead, their unwavering resolve shows that they are in for the long haul and that they will continue their work until every student finds success. It's such a significant and meaningful message...moreso than the "Just add #hashtag!" crowd.

As I go back to work after Spring Break and face the last quarter of the school year, it would be easy to get caught up in the little things---state testing, annual reports, end-of-year budgets, and so on. But both Jackson and Routman have inspired me to do my best to keep my focus on the larger purpose and goals for my work...that every day is an opportunity to make a difference. Maybe they can do the same for you.

28 March 2015

What's Your Why?

I spent last weekend at the ASCD annual conference---my fifth one. They are a blur of conversations, learning, laughter, and vendor-dodging. I look forward to these moments all year. They are my opportunity to visit with friends I only see once a year and build connections that make my work at home that much more rich.

At one of the presentations, a student teacher group asked the audience, What's your why? For me, this was a great frame for the conference.

My "why" is different now than when I was a student teacher---when I was sure I could change the world. Robyn Jackson told a story during her presentation about when she was about to be a first year teacher. She was convinced that she was only months away from a book or movie deal. After all, isn't that what happens? An enthusiastic young teacher enters a classroom for the first time and transforms the system? (I don't know about you, but I've seen that movie many times.) While Dr. Jackson has had her own journey in the educational world, you know when you meet her that she has not lost her why...her passion for students and learning...her belief that she can make a difference, even if she never has that movie deal.

There was a fabulous keynote speaker: Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise. Speaking on how we develop our sense of perseverence, Dr. Lewis was resolute in the passion of her message and beliefs. Failure is neither an end or beginning, it is just part of the journey. It is part of how we develop our why. I am most anxious to read her book. I also recommend her TED talk.

The conference had a different feel this year and I believe that it was due to a more balanced approach to what was offered. It seemed like last year (and the year before) were way too heavy on edtech sessions. The great thing about a large conference like this is that it's an opportunity to learn things you might never run across in your day-to-day world...and sessions that focus on what a Twitter hashtag is dumb down the overall experience. Edtech has had its day in the sun and now it's time to let the grownups talk for awhile. Anyway, this year, most of the sessions were geared toward elevating our conversation in education. Lots more sessions with a focus on social justice, helping students create meaning, and supporting principals in their work. The quality of the why was increased tremendously this year.

This was the first year that I've attended the conference with several other people from my district. Many were first-timers at the conference, and their "why" was focused on seeing as many big names as possible. (I remember doing that, too, at my second conference.) It was a good opportunity for them to reflect on their current goals and hopes while listening to experts talk about their own vision. An annual conference is a good opportunity to consider the state of your why.

As for me? My why continues to evolve. I have had a grand love affair with my new job this year, even though it exhausts and challenges me relentlessly. Being around 9000 others who use the conference to recommit to the critical work we do with students is both energizing and reaffirming. I have no doubt that all of our whys are different, but I don't believe that matters. It's the collective voice and synergy that make public education as rich as it is.

I came home with some new ideas, a few books to read, and other ideas to share. Look for some new posts in the coming weeks that follow up on these ideas.

23 February 2015

Help Wanted

I can't speak for what's happening everywhere, but here the economy is much better than it was a few years ago. People who needed jobs as substitute teachers in 2010 don't need them now. If you have a degree and some experience, you've got a permanent position somewhere---perhaps not even in education.

But our need for qualified teachers, paraeducators, and other support is greater than ever.

We're not the only district experiencing a sub shortage at the moment. And while we can kick around some possible solutions, in the interim it's really hurting professional development opportunities for teachers.

Voters in our state recently passed an initiative to reduce class-sizes. It's a feel-good sort of thing. People like the idea of more personalized attention for students...never mind that the research shows that it's ineffective in all but a few situations. Voters didn't really think the whole thing through. Where are we supposed to get all these teachers---many districts can't fill the positions they already have? Where are all these classrooms going to come from? Most schools don't have the physical space to create dozens of new classrooms. Supplies for all the new classrooms? Are voters going to open their pockets to fund those, too?

I was just reading about a proposal for more STEM-related summer activities and learning for students in grades 5 - 12. Love the idea...and my first thought was "Who will lead it?" There aren't enough teachers to go around---not when you factor in all of the workshops and other professional learning that happens in the summer...let alone the need to recharge for another year.

So to sum up: not enough subs...not enough teachers to staff schools...not enough other adults to support additional programming. If you've been thinking about a career in education (or just a move to Washington state), now's your chance. We have good jobs for you.

But we need to think long-term, as well. Maybe it's about money...but I'm not so sure. Higher pay may well attract people that wouldn't have originally thought about being in the classroom. Maybe we need to think about diversifying the pathways that lead to the classroom. Perhaps it's about better support---adding apprenticeships or other extended learning that help new teachers feel ready to step into their own classrooms.

What are your solutions to the "help wanted" issues in education?

20 February 2015

Because I'm Bad, So Bad, You Know It

Here are a few reasons I regularly hear or see about why students have a low score on a state test:
  1. The kid was having a bad day.
  2. It's a bad test.
  3. The kid is bad at taking tests.
The first one is possible, but I rarely put any stock in it. Why? Because not once have I heard the opposite reason given for a good score. "Wow! That kid passed the test. He must have been having a great day." It's understandable that we get disappointed when students perform well---especially when we have been beside them every day and have seen all the progress they've made. Makes it all the more important to celebrate the successes we have. One score does not define a student or a teacher. But we shouldn't dismiss it based solely upon Chance, either. If we're not willing to say that the scores we like were only attributed by good days, we can't toss the others to bad ones.

As for the second, I'm willing to believe it far more for a teacher made test than a large-scale version. Why? Most teachers have had no formal training in assessment. I've seen plenty of poorly developed items and poorly constructed tests at the classroom level---including my own. For a lot of my classroom career, I would not have been able to tell you whether or not an item was good---Did it measure what I wanted it to measure? Was it free from bias? Was the content accurate? Did the analysis of the student responses support the goal of the whole assessment? Bad tests exist. But they are not the ones your state is using to measure student learning. Don't like the way the results are used? That's a whole different discussion.

The last reason is similar to the first in that it does exist...but very rarely. In my classroom career, I only ran across one student who was truly terrible with tests. She was in an AP class and could answer nearly any question I asked her in a conversation. On paper---even with the benefit of her textbook and all of her notes, labs, and assignments---she couldn't pick the right answer. She is the only student I ever discouraged from taking the AP test. I tried coaching her all year...we went over questions and talked about the thinking involved with answering them...but we just couldn't get her enough strategies to make it work. So, she was one out of thousands that I could truly say number 3 fit. As for the rest, I rarely made a concerted effort at "test prep." I did work with students on metacognition---being aware of how they were making choices with questions. But the most important thing to do was focus on content and teach to the standards.

Lots of people---both in and out of the classroom---don't like large-scale testing. I'm not one of them, as unpopular as it might be to say so. But then, I've had the benefit of being involved with writing items, test builds, scoring sessions, rangefinding, and more. I've seen the entire sausage get made. However, I don't like how the scores from these tests get used---for graduation requirements, student placement, teacher evaluation, and other uses for which the tests were never intended. But we can't disconnect those from testing by attacking the tests themselves with arguments about them being bad.

18 February 2015

Rookie Card

I had a principal tell me this year that the ID badge of all new employees should have a big "R" on it for "rookie." And when you were faced with an awkward situation or made a misstep, you could pull out your rookie card and ask for forgiveness. I think this is a brilliant idea.

I have been a rookie at several points during my career---from the very first day in the classroom, to new buildings, grades, courses, and roles. I am beginning to be "a woman of a certain age," meaning that by this point, others are expecting me to be settled down into a career...and competing with younger (less expensive) workers is going to be an increasing challenge. But it also means that I'm not bothered by change anymore. I'm too old to let that get in the way of what I need to do. I know it's a waste of energy to worry about it.

I can't claim, that it gets easier. It's hard to start all over with a new job in a new district. It's humbling to continually admit that you don't know the answers (yet) and build relationships when you don't know all of the back stories. I will say, however, that this has been the nicest transition I've ever made. It makes all the difference to be surrounded by people that care about doing the best job that they can and who appreciate what I can offer and bring to the district.

I told someone recently that I had forgotten that people could say nice things. It's not that my previous job was awful or that there weren't good people to work with. But it had been such a long time since anyone cared about what I had to say or had an interest in new ideas. I feel valued as a person and as an educator. My work days are long and I have more to do than ever before...and yet I wake up every morning and can't wait to get to work. That feeling, too, had been long forgotten.

The rookie card is an awkward one. On one hand, it screams inexperience...and on the other, it asks for empathy. I only have six more months to use mine, although I feel the need to play it less and less. I may be turning into an old lady, but I also feel more confident, more needed, and more ready to help teachers and students than ever before. I'll be ready to flaunt my pro status.

16 February 2015

Getting Along

I've been thinking about this slide a lot. I have used it for almost a year now when talking about systems for data use. The start is the teacher/classroom. Teachers collect a lot of data--attendance, grades, etc. that they need to use on a very short timeline---they have to make (tactical) decisions about the work they'll do with students the very next day. However, they aren't the only users for this data. Conversations may happen at the PLC level (department) when teachers share student information. Schools and districts look at similar data, but on a longer timeline (quarterly or annually). They look for trends and patterns across buildings or grade levels. As we continue to aggregate data outward, we end up representing a lot of teachers and a very long timeline. Some things, like the Civil Rights Data Collection only happen every other year. Election cycles can further drive when strategic planning for education occurs. Different methods of data collection (school information systems vs. state/federal databases) also add a layer of challenges.

At the end of the day, this image is about communication...or the lack thereof. I can picture a teacher looking up through all those layers of the system and being exasperated that s/he isn't being heard. "Don't they understand what I'm going through down here?" And I can also imagine someone sitting atop the federal level saying to the teacher "Don't you understand that this is bigger than just you?" The truth is they're both right. It's public education---and everyone gets a say, whether you like what they have to say or not. Someone in a leadership position who doesn't share your point of view shouldn't automatically be labeled a bad leader. If anything, it's a chance to find out what they know that you don't---and also to share your information with them to round out their thinking.

I had an email this week from a teacher asking about some course title work that was happening. She referred to "the district" as if it really is an entity separate from everything else in the system. It's not. She's just as much a part of it as anyone else, even if she didn't see it that way at the moment. I tried to be careful in wording my reply---not only to put a face on "the district," as the matter in question is a project I'm leading...but also to help her think about empowering herself as part of the discussion. We're all in it together.

When I think about the data and communication pieces, I also think about this tweet from Hilary Mason:

Photo: cc-nd-nc-by Christopher Penn https://www.flickr.com/photos/financialaidpodcast/2287769216/
It's a great question. Much of the data we gather and use in the education system is about students. What does it mean to help them gain power with what we learn from the information that we have? What does it mean for a state government to help teachers gain power from the aggregated data that they collect?

I spend a lot of time thinking about my role in all of this. I'm not interested in changing the system. Over the years, I've grown to accept it as a fact of life.  Railing against other parts of the system so you can be master of your own box will get you nowhere and will only make you more frustrated and angry. Go ahead and write a bunch of blog posts about how Arne Duncan is a poopy-head because he doesn't know your classroom...but all you're really doing is confusing your job with his.

I am a mediator of sorts when it comes to data between all of the various levels. I do some of the things you might expect---looking for patterns and trying to find the signals in all of the noise we generate. I also do lots of very unsexy things---I have lots of conversations about data quality, trying to help an individual teacher understand that whether or not s/he takes attendance contributes to acts of policy at the outer levels. We can't just shake a tiny fist and claim the federal government doesn't understand when all we've provided is bad data for them to build their ideas from.We have to find ways to get along.