31 March 2014

ASCD 2014: The Travelogue Edition

Even after nine years, this is still a personal blog. Sure, the posts are more career-based, but I'd like to think my sum is more than my educator parts. So, here's the inside edition from my trip to the ASCD annual conference.

The Train
I first took an overnight trip on Amtrak for the 2010 ASCD conference in San Francisco. And I fell in love with the whole thing. I have taken several trips that time, and heading to Los Angeles and back was no exception. The Coast Starlight offers amazing views of the ocean, small town life, snow covered mountainscapes, and more. I saw a ton of wildlife---a flock of pelicans landing in the Pacific, a herd of elk moving through the Oregon Cascades, seals at the nature preserve near Salinas, California, coyotes, deer, and countless species of birds. The plant life is also fabulous. I always meet great people on the train (some are a little...different...but that makes them all the more fun to chat with over dinner). I sleep well and enjoy the opportunity to let someone else drive, cook, and clean for a few days. It's perfect for someone like me who is usually more focused on the journey than the destination.

The Hotel
I have to say that Los Angeles is full of impossibly good looking people behind every counter and order pad. The hotel was no exception, perhaps as a distraction from the IKEA meets Motel 6 interior. I did get hit on in the bar by a randy older (70+ year old) conference attendee who gave me his card and told me to call him if I was feeling "adventurous" while at ASCD. I am not uninitiated about the teachers-gone-wild attitude at conferences, but I admit that it's been a long time since I've seen it in action. Between him and the day-drunk at the bus stop who also decided I was fair game, I'm not sure what it says.

The Earthquake
I haven't felt an earthquake since the 2001 Nisqually event. I had been wondering about a California quake while wandering around the city...and then, it happened. (Not implying a cause-effect relationship, mind you.) This time, I was on the fifth floor of a building---no roaring sound, no wavy floor. But I felt it long before I saw evidence on the local morning news program on the tv. (No, I wasn't watching the station where the anchors dived under the desk.) Being in Los Angeles for an earthquake was not on my bucket list. Still isn't.

Yes, I did some tourist things. I rode the open-air double decker bus through Hollywood, down the Sunset Strip, through Beverly Hills and downtown LA. California always feel a little surreal to me. The weather is too perfect, the people both good looking and friendly, and every view reminds you of a movie you've seen. Mirage or not, it's easy to see why so many people have moved there...why I had so many students who pined to go back after their families headed north.

My favourite stop, however, was the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Unlike the earthquake, this was on my bucket list. I have wanted to visit since reading Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder in the mid-90's. It is a difficult museum to describe, as it's really a meta-museum---a museum about what it means to be a museum. How do you know whether the placards beside a display are accurate? What about the ones who dedicate a specific room to someone---does the someone really exist? How do we decide what's "worthy" of display and what isn't? Mind you, none of these points are outwardly raised by the museum, but you can't help but think about them when you see an exhibit dedicated to oil paintings of dogs involved with the Russian space program, a series of artfully displayed miniature staircases with architectural information as you ascend a stairwell, or put on glasses for a 3D presentation that is ostensibly translated from the French version. After waiting nearly 20 years to visit, I have to say that the experience exceeded my expectations. If you find yourself in the City of Angels, make time to stop by.

Conference Center
I don't mean to sound sleazy, but I've been in a lot of convention centers...and the one in LA is larger than any of them. You might expect to go to a conference and do a lot of walking. If you go to LA, double your expectation. Los Angeles is not a good city for walkers---nor bike-friendly, either---but at least there is shopping, food, and more convenient to the conference. You could do worse.

My netbook died my first day in LA. So I ended up tracking down a new one (and HDMI cable) for my presentation. Tech support at the conference center was very helpful.

Have you been to LA? Were you there for ASCD? What are your favourite memories or places to visit?

27 March 2014

A Well-Measured Diet

One of the things I like about the ASCD annual conference is that it's a smorgasbord of topics. I've had a varied career---taught science, worked in an elementary, was a district curriculum specialist, done state assessment work, and so on. I like that I can catch up on these elements and reflect on how the pieces fit together.

The last session I attended at this year's conference was called "Measuring What Matters" and was presented by Giselle Martin-Kniep of Learner-Centered Initiatives. The premise for the session was that when we consider what we want most for our students, teachers, and administrators, those outcomes are either left unmeasured by the system or are present but distorted. Therefore, we should make systemic changes to our evaluations so that we align our practices with our values. In particular we should focus on performace-based measures.

This was a 30,000 foot level discussion. I don't think anyone disagreed with the premise. It speaks to the kind of system we'd all like to see. The 30 foot view...even the 3 foot view...are much different and we didn't get to that part. So, if you can set aside the "This would never work because..." side of your brain for a moment, read on.

Martin-Kniep's first point was that we are working in a system "where reliability trumps validity." In other words, we value information that confirms the same thing over and over as opposed to whether or not the information is true. Call it what you like---confirmation bias, echo chamber---we like to surround ourselves with the familiar. Somehow, we need to find ways to reach out of our comfort zone.

Maybe that's like going to a new-to-you restaurant with types of food. Martin-Kniep stated that "Our measurement diet is extremely poor." She expanded the analogy to advocate for performance assessments that are nutrient (data) rich. I really liked this idea. A well-balanced diet has different components---we can't, or shouldn't, subsist on junk food alone. You can be vegetarian, but you have to find different ways to include protein. A well-measured evaluation system must also be diverse and rich with opportunity to gain the data we want.

Finally, Martin-Kniep advocated for us to remember that it is "important to look at student work not just for learning gaps, but also whether it is respectful of what we value." Whether or not you are able to translate the ideals presented during this session into action in your school, this last point is a commitment we can make. I won't claim that it is easy, but taking a moment to reflect on the tasks we provide students and the tools we use to evaluate teachers and principals is important. Do they measure what they should? (Are they valid?) Do they measure what we want them to? (Are they aligned?) Do they measure what we value (e.g. creative thinking, citizenship, problem-solving, collaboration)?

It's "testing season" in most places. Schools are focused on state tests---or even giving the new national tests a try. Martin-Kniep's session was a good reminder for me of the importance of making sure that we continue to push for multiple ways for students to show what they know...to keep pushing for the well-measured diet of assessment strategies.

25 March 2014

I'm Not Racist, But...

I tend to look at equity through a different lens these days. Our work with small schools is driven by a need for equity---for teachers, for students, and for communities. The effort to be effective with data means applying a critical lens to implications of what we collect, who collects it, and why. But these are not conversations a lot of (white) people want to have. It's an uncomfortable space, although that's no reason not to engage.

So, with that in mind, I've been tracking a variety of short conversations over the past week.

Part One: Strangers on a Train
I rode Amtrak to the ASCD conference. There is a wine tasting each afternoon and I decided to join a table with a woman who had immigrated from Mexico three years ago, and her father, who was visiting from Mexico City. One of the things they commented on was the Amtrak crew, which was comprised of several different races. They said that where they were from, that wouldn't happen. "It's not that we're racist," they said, "it's just that we don't mix."

I've been thinking about that comment. Is racism a universal construct...or can it differ by culture? If so, what are the implications for how we address racism in our classrooms and institutions? Are there varying degrees of racism---can one be "a little bit racist" unlike being "a little bit pregnant"? I haven't a clue what the answers are, but they've been interesting to kick around in my head. What do you think?

Part Two: Stories from the Field
Purchase a copy from Heinemann
One of the more interesting sessions I attended was presented by Sonia Nieto. She shared what she's learned from interviews with teachers for her recent book: Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds.

Nieto states that there is not a single pathway to being a culturally responsive teacher...no list of best practices that will transform a classroom. While she didn't provide any particular supporting evidence for her statement, I suspect that it has to do with the very nature of diversity itself. Classrooms are a complex mix of personalities, curriculum, and teaching and learning.

Based on her interviews, Nieto shared some insight into how these teachers keep their passions aflame for the work they do. I didn't capture them all, but here are a few:
  1. Teaching is an act of love: empathy, solidarity, respect, and expectations. This includes getting kids to goals.
  2. Teaching is an ethical act. You not only have the right, but the responsibility to teach ALL kids.
  3. Teachers are learners. Look for diverse experiences to engage with.
  4. Teaching is political work. We must be advocates.
Nieto made some powerful statements---ones that will stick with me for a long time. First, if you believe that all students have the right to dream...we must do better. And secondly, from a quote from one of the teachers she interviewed, "Don't wait for kids to be who you want them to be before you teach them. They're ready to learn now. Put your 'stuff' away and work."

Part Three: Distractions
Do we look for bright shiny things to distract ourselves from the conversations we really need to be having in education?

Tweet by Teresa Bunner: Because we don't want to talk about race or racism. We want to talk about tech. Much more "fun"/safer.

I saw this a lot this year at ASCD, which was rather disappointing. The reason why this conference has been so brilliant in the past is simply because it isn't ISTE. It's a conference for everyone---people in all walks of education, in all stages of their career, and with all levels of interest. We don't need more silicon-based pablum from the iPad crowd. ISTE already provides a venue for that. We need leadership and focus here on what's best for all students...not just those with their nose to the screen.

Part Four: The Exhibit Hall
I took a tour through the exhibit hall, specifically looking for data tools. (You can read more about what I found here.) I mention it here, not because what I found was racist...but because it applies to a different facet of diversity: disability. As I chatted with one of the vendors, I asked them how they checked on accessibility. Their answer: "We don't." Seriously? You design a web-based tool to sell to schools and districts and do absolutely no work to make your product accessible to everyone. I'm not sure how this is okay. If anything, the web should make content and tools better for all...not just usable by some. Not that they had a product worth mentioning to begin with, but I certainly won't be endorsing it to any school district I work with now.

A colleague at work simply says "Get over it." when someone suggests that discussions about race are hard. It's another way of saying "Put your 'stuff' away." And maybe this is how we need to provide a pointed, but gentle, reminder to those we work with. Whatever the answers are, we won't find them until we at least try to ask the questions.

23 March 2014

We Have to Believe We Are Magic

With all the fuss about new standards and assessments, teacher and principal evaluations, and other outside pressures on schools, it's easy to lose sight of a well-balanced approach to our classrooms. Washington Montessori, in Greensboro, North Carolina, is working hard to meet the challenge of focusing on the whole child. The school is the 2014 recipient of the Vision in Action: The ASCD Whole Child Award.

Principal Sharon Jacobs says of her school that "our teachers are the magicians and the children are our superstars." Jacobs has a quiet assured presence. Dressed in school colors, a warm smile, and long strands of pearls, she speaks with unguarded passion about the teachers, families, and students of her school, the journey they have taken together over the last several years, and her hopes for the future.

Jacobs brought an enthusiastic team of educators with her to the ASCD conference to receive the award: Paulita Musgrave and Shanta Buchanan from the curriculum team; Gillian Hill, Erin Deal, and Eileen Martin from the teaching staff. I don't think anything made me smile more over the last week than seeing the faces of these women when Ms. Jacobs told them about the award---the secret finally shared with the larger audience. For Jacobs, the work is not solely about the whole child, it is also about the whole teacher and the whole parent.

Teachers list Jacobs's strength as her ability as a communicator. She often begins conversations with "I need your help..." or asks what staff need in order to meet the needs of students. The school has changed greatly over the last decade. Not only has it had to rebuild from a threatened shutdown due to poor performance, it has transformed to Montessori methods and the staff has grown from 20 to 70. Eileen, one of the teachers, was originally a paraeducator and bus driver for the school. Jacobs understands how to grow people---how to help them recognize and build on their assets.

The positive effects they've had on student learning are not solely because of the principal, as she is the first to admit. It has taken effort on the part of everyone to make this difference. There is a lot of support from parents and families in the classroom and in the district. Parents from the school now lead sessions on Common Core and other topics for parents across the school district. Students also help by teaching parents at family nights. They set out the lesson materials and lead the learning experiences.

Principal Jacobs also speaks to the legacy of her school---part of the building was constructed in 1915 and she and the staff feel a responsibility to keep the story of the school alive. More importantly, however, is the legacy they are building in the abilities and dreams of their students.

This school is magic, indeed. Congratulations, Washington Elementary!

16 March 2014

It's That Time Again!

It's March, and you know what that means around Ye Olde Blog: it's ASCD Annual Conference time. This time, we're in Los Angeles for three days of professional learning. Jason, from Always Formative, and Jen, from Elementary My Dear or Far from It, are here blogging, too---so be sure to click on over and check out their lens on this event.

I'm presenting this afternoon at 3.The session is on how to Use Data to Tell Your Story and you download (and explore) the resources here.

I've been attending sessions around equity, data use, and sundry things that may support work with rural districts. Posts coming soon.

02 March 2014

Change of View

I spent most of February on the road. Three out of four weeks included significant travel, all for projects involving small school districts. Based on the last official numbers, Washington had 72 districts with fewer than 225 students. Enrollment does tend to fluctuate wildly for some of these districts. I know of one, for example with approximately 40 students...10 of those are from the same (extended) family. You can imagine how a move from the area has an impact.

There is a quote by Gene Theodori that I love: When you've seen one rural community...you've seen one rural community. The same applies to rural schools. No two are alike. But what I am noticing is that some schools are on a path that is propelling them forward to create amazing possibilities for their students...students who, when leaving their area for the first time, ask their teacher if the city they see in the distance New York City, instead of Spokane.

But there are some districts where the teachers have lost all sense of self-efficacy. They complain about working within a community that is based on entitlement (welfare), and yet only ask for the same when it comes to their work---What will you give me? vs. What can we do for our students? There are lots of comments about what their kids can't do...and then when it's suggested that these teachers present or otherwise share their learning, the answer is "We can't."

I can't blame them for losing hope. They have a hard row to hoe. In one district, the teachers drive the bus, serve the lunch, and clean the school (no more funding for a custodian)---in addition to teaching multiple grade levels, all subjects, and having no prep time. That would wear anyone down in a hurry. And yet I can't help but notice the extreme contrast between the attitudes of these districts.

It is easier to take the sparks and fan them. They'll flame to life on their own and make magic happen. It's harder to know what the next steps are for those who have let their spark die out. I remind them as often as I can that I believe in them...that they're important, no matter how small the enrollment. But I'm not there everyday to cheerlead. Most of these schools have an administrator in the building just one day a week. These are teachers on their own.

So, how do we gently say that if you don't like what you see in the mirror when you look at your school, that you can change what is reflected? That you are powerful and what you do matters? How do we rebuild resilience for these teachers?