16 January 2016

Stretching Beyond the Boundaries

Education likes its boxes. We like grade levels and subject areas and demographics. We like hierarchy and programs. We like making determinations about who fits where, what they should learn, and how that should happen. These things are at odds with being in a "people business," but we excuse it in the name of having an economy of scale and maintaining an unquestioning status quo. Good teaching, in my opinion, is about helping students understand which limits they are bound by and which are arbitrary. Teachers support students in testing and exploring these.

As adults, we owe ourselves the same opportunities for personal and professional growth. In social networks, you sometimes hear a reference to an echo chamber that occurs when you surround yourself with contacts that are similar to you. It's comfortable and familiar and cozy.


I feel those walls creeping in sometimes, too. Make no mistake, I am quite happy to succumb to their charms as easily as anyone else. So this year, I've been thinking about reaching out in different ways for learning.

Up first is the Tapestry Conference on March 9. This event focuses on storytelling with data, but it is not an education conference. I applied to be part of it for just that reason. I don't know that I have anything to offer the group that will be there, but I am hoping to learn things that I could bring back to the big ole box of education. I've been trying to shift the narrative in our district away from cartoon-colored spreadsheets to meaningful conversation about the data we collect and use. I am excited about being a part of Tapestry this year and extending both my knowledge base and personal network.

And in June, I'm off to the Eyeo Festival. I have been enamored of this event for the last couple of years and just haven't been able to make it happen. But I secured a ticket this week. And even though the festival will be at a very busy time during the school year, I feel like it's important to make the time to go. As educators, we have many opportunities to engage in professional learning that feeds our head and fills our toolbox. But this one will be something that fills my spirit for the work. Like Tapestry, it is not a conference designed for educators. However, I think that's what I need most at this point---to look beyond the borders of education and see how others are thinking about ideas related to data, design, and code.

In my quest for further inspiration, I have added a few Twitter accounts to my feed that add a sense of wonder. If you're looking for some yourself, check out the Magic Realism Bot or the Moth Generator. Both are automata...both provide something beautiful to ponder. See, too, The Strange Log, which documents "the strange poetry of changelogs and patch notes."

Over winter break, I went through and cleaned up all of my links in Delicious. Over 1200 links were deleted---mostly because the tools, articles, or services they connected with are long gone. Others were deleted because they didn't serve a purpose (for me) anymore. Something cool in 2008 is not necessarily what I use now. Since the big cleanup, I've been adding steadily, mostly in the area of design communication.This includes tagging things that relate to data visualization through the lens of feminism and audience. Again, it's an area for me to explore and push beyond the traditional narrative of communicating with data.

What are you thinking about this year that will inspire you or remind you that the edge of your rut is not the horizon? How will you stretch beyond the boundaries you set for yourself or that others set for you?

02 January 2016

Counting on You

Even though the winter season is less than two weeks old, I view the return to work following winter break as the "spring" semester. It feels more hopeful and serves as a reminder that summer is coming...someday...even if the view outside my window suggests otherwise. I am officially done with my admin credential program, which means that when I return to work on Monday, I can "just" do my job.

I have another blog, which focuses on data use in the educational setting. And recently, I've been wrestling over there with how to accurately represent and communicate about populations of students. And while readers here might not care so much about the nuts and bolts of some of this work, I do think you're perfectly poised to comment on some of the ethics and expectations associated with it. So, let me share a little background...some ideas...and then see what you can add.

I work in a district that has mostly white students from middle-class backgrounds. When I represent the achievement gap at a grade level, it looks something like this:

In some ways, this doesn't look all that different from what you might expect. White or Asian female students who do not receive special services or participate in the federal free or reduced lunch program perform better than the district average on the state assessment. (More information on this chart is over here, if you're so inclined.)

But I want to talk about the second line of data (representing race) and talk about those groups for a moment. I can't show you the actual numbers of students in each category without violating FERPA rules around student privacy. At a grade level, for example, we might only have two black students. If one meets the standards on the assessment and the other doesn't...it looks bleak. Ditto if they both don't meet the standards. However, if both of them do, they show up at 100% on the graphic above and this may also result in some ennui.

This is where I struggle with how best to represent the data. Yes, we need to consider each and every child. Every student as an individual is important and worthy of our attention and support as educators. However, small population sizes difficult to interpret for adults...and somewhat unfair to students.

For example, let's say that one of our high schools has six Native American students. When do we become concerned about disproportionality? Is it fair to assume that a "proportional" amount of those six students will take every AP course and participate in every sport or activity? Probably not, especially since those six students are spread out across four grade levels. But it is also not okay if they not represented at all. So what would make sense? Show a rolling average across 3 to 5 years?

Recently, I tried something else.

This shows student performance on the most recent state assessment in English Language Arts for one grade at one school. Every student's score is represented by a circle on the chart (n = 69). Grey circles are for scores from white students (n = 54)...pink circles are for scores by students of color (n = 15). Ordinarily, I stay away from lumping various racial groups into one category. I have really struggled with the decision here. However, instead of trying to navigate the discussion about one Native American student, what we see here is that one-third of our students of color scored in the lowest category of performance...and overall, two-thirds of white students met the standards compared to only one-third of students of color. It's a pattern that's more difficult to ignore for adults, but I still want to keep individual students in mind. (More information on the graph above is here.)

So what do you think? When there are ultra-small numbers of students in a given population, how do we accurately represent them while having enough integrity with our data to feel confident in decisions we make from them? How do we best serve our students in this area? I'm counting on you for some new ideas.

19 December 2015

The Long Distance Sprint

It is done. I have finished my admin credential---from start to finish in 6 months. I enrolled in a competency based program, so seat time wasn't a factor. I began on July 1...wrote a paper a day...and wrapped up all of my coursework on August 5. The next week, I sat for my Praxis exam and started collecting the 540 hours toward my internship. I've been interning in a school at least one day a week (and often two days) throughout the fall. And yesterday, I turned in the last of my portfolio assignments, my log of hours, and my professional growth plan.

It's been a long, hard, fall semester.

The credential was not an official condition for my being hired into my current job, but it was strongly suggested. And while at this point in my career, I have no particular interest in being a building principal, I have a long way to go before retirement. So, I will put this one on a shelf and, if the time and opportunity are right, I'll put it to work for me.

While losing 20% of my work week to an internship was difficult, I truly enjoyed being in an elementary school again. I had great mentors and fantastic teachers and para-educators to spend time with and learn from. I will miss being part of that.

But I've been very sick this fall, as well. Four months of treatment and three surgeries later, and I am still working on getting over things. I have another surgery next month...and possibly another later this spring. Juggling that into the mix of internship, classes, portfolio, and trying to do my regular job has not been simple.

A "year" means something different when you work in education. I suppose I am looking forward to 2016 for personal reasons, but in my professional life, this point in the year is only a pause in our marathon. Winter break is a time to catch my breath, and set some goals to accomplish between now and the end of the year. January will be a time to rededicate myself to my current role and maybe take on a new project here and there.

Best wishes to you all as you recover from getting the school year up and running...and make an effort to finish strong in the coming months. It's a marthon, not a sprint, after all.

04 October 2015

The Conflicted Disciplinarian

I stepped out into the office this week to find a kindergartner looking over the counter. He resembled a Kilroy cartoon---just his fingers holding onto the counter and the part of his head from the eyes up. "Are you ready to go back to class?" I asked him. He looked very confused. "I missed my recess again."

Yep, little one. You did. I asked him if he remembered why he didn't get to have recess and he knew it was because he had used his scissors to cut another student in his class. But I could tell that he didn't really understand what that had to do with recess. The connection between action and consequence wasn't clear to him.

The assistant principal and I had talked to the student before lunch. And while it would have been within bounds to suspend the student for the act of "violence," I couldn't advocate for that. First of all, he's five and has been in school less than a month. I don't know that he understands what school is yet...let alone why you might not be allowed to come to it. Second of all, he's five and doesn't have a lot of "tools" for dealing with conflicts he has with classmates.

The story goes that the teacher asked students to put their scissors away, and this little boy didn't. Another student repeated what the teacher said and the boy cut her on the finger. He could have said "Mind your own business." or "You're not the boss of me." or "I'm almost done." or a host of other things. But at that moment, he just reacted the only way he knew how. I'm not saying it was appropriate. I am saying that this is our opportunity to help him learn about other choices and how to use his words to communicate his feelings. Sending him home for a day doesn't do that. Frankly, I had a hard time taking away his lunch recess and afternoon recess, but that's what we ended up doing. The little boy had already apologized to his classmate.

Later that same day, we talked to two first graders that had been fighting on the playground. At some point during the scuffle, one punched the other and received a kick "in the nuts" (as one of the six-year olds stated) in return. Again, we could have suspended the little dudes...but I just couldn't justify it. This is mostly due to their age. I do believe that at age six, a child is old enough to understand that punching and kicking someone else is not okay. I don't believe that at age six that a child can manage all of their relationships effectively. I know plenty of adults who can't, either, but that's a different issue. Is it more important to assign the consequence and hope it makes an impression...or is it more important to use misbehavior as a teachable moment so that they student learns other ways to interact with classmates? Are both necessary?

Seattle schools recently instituted a one-year moratorium on suspensions for elementary students who commit non-violent offenses. While neither of the incidents I encountered this week would have been considered non-violent, I really have to wonder how many suspensions for any reason are necessary for elementary students. I know that there are some times when it is best for the student to have a break to regain some self-control, as well as times when a classroom may need a break from a chaotic student, too. But how many of those are there?

I also wonder about how and when we implement restorative justice as an approach at elementary. If you're five and already struggling to understand that there are more ways to get your point across other than acting out, is a sincere apology enough, knowing that older grade levels will add on to that base?

There's a lot to balance. In the case of the kindergartner, I'm sure the parent of the child who was hurt expects the school to assign a punishment. I'm sure that his guardian, who is homeless, just needs the boy to feel safe and cared for in a stable environment during the day. I'm sure that the little boy just needs to be a little boy.

When a kid gets sent to the office, I'm supposed to be the "bad cop," so the relationship with the teacher is preserved. I'm supposed to be the hardass when dealing with kids who can't even open their own milk cartons. I'm supposed to be judge, jury, and executioner...and that feels like a lot of responsibility, especially when I'm looking at a kid who can barely see over the counter. Maybe I'm just too big of a softie at heart, but I find it really difficult to bring down the hammer on any of these kiddos.

Meanwhile, over at the high school, it's a very different sort of story. Kids who are caught with pot in their backpacks. Kids who are leaving campus during the day to walk around the neighbourhood and smoke a cigarette. Kids who don't go home at night and have worried parents calling the next day to see if they've shown up at school. Kids who know how to push a teacher's buttons and take great pleasure in doing so.

Now what?

At high school, everyone involved in those conversations is world-weary, including the students. While no one admits that they are giving up on kids outright, there seems to be a pervasive attitude that the best thing to do is just find the easiest path to graduation for students. Change their schedule. Put them on the list for alternative school. Send them to ISS for one period a day to do their work there. Send them to counseling. Most of these solutions don't really get at the root cause of things, but are instead designed to put on a patch until the kid leaves school, one way or the other. With a graduation rate around 80%, that's a lot of kids who get the message that school is not the place for them.

I suspect that there are other ways to manage all of this: teaching social-emotional skills, establishing restorative justice practices, allocating resources to keeping older students engaged and on track. I don't know how we put it in place. It's great that we have systems for positive behavior supports, but I don't think this is enough for 20% of our students. What is your school or district doing that seems to be working? How do we as a system make connections between our own actions and consequences?

27 September 2015

Learning All the Time

We're a month into school...and I'm about halfway through collecting hours toward my administrator credential. I'm spending most of my time in an elementary school, but there will be some in middle school and high school. Here are a few things I've learned so far:

I am twice as tired at the end of a day at the elementary school than I am from interning at the high school. The elementary has a principal, assistant principal, and counselor. The high school has 200 more students, but it has three administrators, three counselors, two security guards, one campus resource officer, and fifteen security cameras. In other words, the high school has way more support for watching, moving, and supporting students and teachers. At elementary, if a SpEd kid tries to run away---there goes at least one of your administrators, leaving the other to cover everything else. Meanwhile, nothing else can get done: being in classrooms, preparing safety plans, focusing on instructional leadership, etc. It's not that one grade span is "easier" than another---just that we really need to look at the balance between what we ask administrators to do and the resources provided.

The problems encountered by high school administrators---at least in terms of students---are far more complex and, frankly, depressing. This is not to say that little kids don't have difficult personal lives, too, but they're sheltered from some of it, either through their own ignorance/self-absorption or by adults. Five year olds don't show up drunk or stoned at school. When a kid shows up in the office at high school, there are some seriously messed up things happening in the background.

Lunch duty in the cafeteria with kinders and first graders is hilarious. Lunch duty with high school kids...not so much. At elementary, I spend time opening milk cartons, tying shoes, avoiding hugs from sticky-fingered and sticky-faced small people, and reminding them to walk (not run) to the playground.

A kinder recently asked if he could get his coat before recess. I walked him to his classroom, but it was locked. I suggested that when he got to the playground that he just run around in the sun to warm up. His reply? "But I can't run very fast...because I'm only five." He was so forlorn about it.

Whoever invents something for female administrators to easily carry their radio, phone, and keys will make tons of money. We need some cute little shoulder bag or fancy fanny pack. Get on that, would you?

As a teacher, I was always aware that I was the adult in the room. As an administrator, I see this need tenfold. If you have a defiant fifth-grader who insists he will never ever come down from the monkey bars...you have to outlast him. If you have a high-school student who insists on a testosterone-fueled response to someone staring at him, then you have to outrank him. I don't mean any of this in a cruel way. I just mean that by the time a teacher or someone else in the building has called you to deal with a problem. you have to find an immediate way to show the student that (a) you care and (b) you are the authority. It's best to reach a common understanding whenever you can, but when that is not possible, you get the last word.

Administrators can't fix kids---anymore than a teacher can. Administrators can't fix adults, either, and yet much of the job is centered around adult problems. Parents who are homeless and have significant needs. Teachers who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Office staff that can't get along. Coordinating with community services. The list goes on and on.

Last week, I was greeted by a second grader with "Hi, Miss Principal Lady!" It made me smile. Although I don't see myself ever officially being a principal, one of the things I am learning is that I could do the job. There's still a ton of things for me to take in, of course, but it doesn't feel insurmountable. In my current administrative role, I only have to know a slice of what a principal knows---but, I have to know that slice for 10 schools and 2 programs, as well as all of the relationships. A principal needs to have a much broader knowledge of school function, but only for one slice of students. A good principal, of course, is much more than what he or she knows---there's a magic to the way that they apply it. That is not something that can be learned, I think...but we'll see what happens between now and end of my internship at winter break. For now, I'm learning all the time.

07 September 2015

Make a Wish

It's almost time to start a brand new school year. Sure, some of you have been back at it for more than a month, but Washington has a kinder, gentler calendar: after Labor Day or Bust.

We had inservice days last week, and I got to hang out with the school where I am doing my administrative internship. I remembered a post from Organized Chaos from a few years ago where her school asked parents of kindergartners what their hopes and dreams were for their children. I loved that idea when I first read it. We are often so focused on what we have planned that we forget to ask everyone in the system about what we want.

So, this year, we asked parents to fill out a card when they dropped off school supplies: What are your hopes and dreams for your child? Most parents responded with ideas about the school year, but a few took a larger view and commented on college or aspirations for life skills. Here is a summary of what they said...
  • Kindergarten: make friends; have fun; love to learn and to be at school
  • Grade 1: make friends; love learning; build social and behavioral skills
  • Grade 2: increase social skills; build self-confidence; be challenged
  • Grade 3: make friends; build self-confidence and self-esteem; stress-free
  • Grade 4: make friends; have fun; build self-confidence
  • Grade 5: make friends; increase social and emotional skills; improve in reading and math
  • Grade 6: make friends; be challenged; stress-free
We were somewhat surprised by these results. They represent about 2/3 of the families at the school. And their biggest wishes for their children's experiences at school have very little to do with academics. Really, I think that's okay---even better than okay. In an era of school improvement, federal mandates, and public accountability, parents are telling us that they hope their kids will be happy and well-adjusted little people. It is the foundation for everything else.

Can the school write a SMART goal around "make friends"? Nope. But I think the data parents have provided are good reason for the school to create a focus on social-emotional skills for kids...something much more than just reading and math. Schools will always have a focus on academics. They can also help nurture the hearts of the communities. From what we see on the cards parents wrote for us, it looks like they're wishing for that, too.

My career turns 25 years old this year. I am excited to be back in a school this fall, looking through the lens of a principal for the first time. My wish is for a year full of learning and professional growth, along with some balance to have more time and opportunity for a personal life.

How about you? What is your wish for the 2015 - 16 school year?

17 August 2015

How Goldilocks Got Her Groove Back

I'm about to start my 25th year in education. That puts me slightly past the halfway mark of my career, and in that time I've had a variety of roles: middle school teacher, high school teacher, elementary instructional coach, district curriculum specialist, state program manager, and now back to a district level role.

Here's a little secret. I have always been jealous of those teachers who stay in the classroom for their entire careers. You know the ones (one of them might be you)---like the 60-year old kindergarten teacher who approaches each new school year with as much energy as when she was 25. I have long admired not only their devotion to the task, but also their contentment with the work. As much as I loved teaching, I never felt at home as much as some people do.

It's my second year with my current job. Last year was a blur. I had a steep learning curve for most of the work and spent a lot of extra time just getting my feet under me. I am looking forward to this year when not everything will be new---even if it is still demanding and time-consuming. More importantly, I feel like this job fits me. It suits my strengths and provides me with challenges that are just the right size. I look forward to going to work each and every day. I don't resent working evenings or weekends, when necessary, because I enjoy the tasks. It's been long enough that any "honeymoon" with the new job should be over. Is it possible that I've finally found the Goldilocks career opportunity? I like my work...I like my environment and the people with whom I work...I like my paycheck and responsibilities. I don't see this as a stopping point on the way to something else or even want to look around for other possibilities. Maybe I will someday, but for now it just feels good to head out the door each morning with a smile on my face.

We have three more weeks until school starts here. There's a lot of work to do between now and then---lots of professional development opportunities, data to crunch, and connections to make. But instead of feeling overwhelmed or sad to see the end of the summer, I feel excited about getting back into the groove of another school year. I hope you all get the chance to feel the same way.