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.