Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Baker's Dozen to Follow -- No Measurements Required For This Recipe

Over the Christmas Holidays, I might have indulged a little too much.  My mother-in-law is an outstanding baker, and so when she came a few days before Christmas, it was with half of a heart that I scolded her for the two moving boxes of baked goods that she brought in to the kitchen.  Along with these sugary delights, suddenly, the cured meats became a main staple during the day: pepperoni, pastrami, capicola, and salami with some sort of exotic cheese were not only an indulgence, they were a requirement.  Never mind the turkey dinners, perogies, waffles with strawberries for breakfast, special coffees, mostly eaten in pajamas while watching "Christmas Vacation", "Love Actually", "The Town", and every sporting event on TV--it has truly been a gastronomical perfect storm this Christmas Holiday.  Thankfully I have been running nearly every day over the holiday, but really I am only doing it to make more room for food.

However, in the spirit of the holidays and overindulgence, I felt it important to concoct just one more recipe that is not only digestible on a full stomach, but may in fact burn off even more calories in the new year.  Each ingredient is a link to an article that I have referred to a number of times, and will continue to do so in the future. If you don't follow some or any of the friends that are linked in this post, do so.  They are hard working people with great and practical ideas that have influenced me and I hope will influence you.

One caution: there are no measurements for this recipe for success, they are all equally as important, and you will know the amounts to add in your classroom, school, or district.

A Recipe to Follow For Success in Your School

Ingredient #1:  create a Personal Learning Network and become a tweep (thanks to Bill Ferriter at 'The Tempered Radical' @plugusin and Aaron Akune at 'Educating in the 21st Century' @aakune)

Ingredient #2:  be a leader by inspiring others to become leaders (thanks to George Couros at 'The Principal of Change' @gcouros)

Ingredient #3: trust your students (thanks to Jeff Delp at 'Mountains out of Molehills' @azjd)

Ingredient #4: focus on revealing that which is within your students (thanks to Chris Wejr at 'The Wejr Board' @MrWejr)

Ingredient #5: find the positive in our students  and allow them to be creative in expressing themselves and what they know (thanks to Chris Wejr at 'Connected Principals' and Johnny Bevacqua at 'Figuring it Out' @johnnybevacqua)

Ingredient #6: think carefully about assessment and the impact of grading on students (thanks to Joe Bower at 'For the Love of Learning' @joebower )

Ingredient #7: Seek out prophets in your own land (thanks to Chris Kennedy at 'The Culture of Yes' @chrkennedy)

Ingredient #8:  find promising practices and share them with others (thanks to Brian Barry at 'Against the Wind' @Nunavut_teacher)

Ingredient #9: look for innovative ways to make time for teachers to perfect their craft (thanks to Lyn Hilt at 'The Principal's Post' and Chris Wejr at 'Connected Principals' @L_Hilt and @MrWejr)

Ingredient #10: think of why before thinking of how (thanks to Gino Bondi at 'Learning the Now' @gmbondi )

Ingredient #11: find ways to put classrooms and the school first and make your office second (thanks to David Truss at 'Pair-a-Dimes' @datruss)

Ingredient #12: stay the course and love what you do (thanks to Justin Tarte at 'Life of an Educator' @justintarte)

Ingredient #13: constantly remind yourself of the reason why (ok, this one is mine from here at 'The Learning Nation' @birklearns)

Please feel free to consume this recipe over and over.  And finally, as with any good recipe, if you have other ingredients that might spice it up, please comment and share!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Help Parents Be Participators (not Spectators) in their Child's Education

I have a goal.  I want twice-yearly parent teacher conferences to be a thing of the past.  I want the concept of parent-teacher interviews to be absolutely redundant.  Do I like meeting with parents? Of course!  It is one of the most important things that we can do in education.  Do I like discussing their children? Absolutely.  Who doesn't like to talk about their children? Do we want parents to come in to our schools? Without question.  Our home is their home.  But with a goal of OVERCOMMUNICATION with our parents, I want every day and every night to be considered a 'parent teacher conference' so that parents can be participators, not spectators, in their child's education.

One of the most convenient scapegoats in education is highlighted when we blame parents for the misgivings of children in our schools. The PARENTS need to be more involved.  The PARENTS are over-involved. The PARENTS need to discipline their kids.  The PARENTS need to teach these kids some manners.  The PARENTS need to step back and let their children take responsibility for their actions. Why can't these PARENTS just TRUST us to do our job?

As you might have guessed from my last post, my daughters (and my brilliant wife, of course) are the most precious people in my life.  Call me crazy, but I make my 2 1/2 year old hold my hand whenever we are in a parking lot, or whenever a car is remotely approaching us on our quiet street.  I make sure when she eats stuff that she chews it thoroughly so she won't choke.  I have secured our flat screen TV to it's stand on that one in a million chance that it might tip over and hurt her.  Book shelves are secured, there are gates everywhere, doorknobs have those childproof things on them, cupboards are clipped shut, pills are safely stowed,and cleaning chemicals are out of reach.  I am a neurotic Dad, right?  Wrong.  I just want to keep my children out of harm's way.  And judging from the books that I have read about parenting and childproofing your house, and the number of books on these sorts of things at Chapters or on Amazon, I am confident that I am not the only parent that wants to protect their children.

So perhaps a better question than any of the ones above is "Why SHOULD any parent trust us to do our job?".   The answer to this is pretty clear.  They SHOULDN'T.  At least not until we have earned their trust.  And we all know that the key to establishing this trust is to create clear lines of communication with parents so that our parents know that we care about their most precious commodity, and that they know that they are partners, not spectators, in their children's education.

We have to ask ourselves, how do we really involve parents in our schools?  I say this from a high school perspective, because when I talk to my elementary colleagues, I hear that parents are much more involved at that level.  But at high school, I often wonder, do our actions REALLY indicate that we truly want parents involved, or do we just want them to give their kids a kick in the pants when they don't do their homework.

Recently, we used Google Docs to create an online survey for our parents.  We have a relatively large school of more than 1400 students and 800 families, and we were thrilled to get responses from nearly a quarter of them (which is by leaps and bounds the largest response that we have gotten). One of the most common answers that we got to "things that our school could improve upon" was communication with home.
When we asked what parents needed to know, things like 'progress', 'how my child is doing', and 'marks' came back among many other things.

This made me think about some things that we can do to make parents more of a partner in their student's education.  I came up with a few things for us.

1) Have a communication protocol for our important events at the school:
We are completely changing the way that we are going to communicate messages from our school.  We have gotten rid of paper newsletters, and are sending these out online.  We have created a communication protocol that will take advantage of numerous applications including email, Twitter, Facebook, Buzz, Tumblr and other means to try to connect to our student, parent and alumni community in as many was as we possibly can.

2) Use a marks program that can easily email progress reports to parents:
Interim reports sent home with kids have very little value.  Most reluctant learners are even more reluctant to take a progress report home that demonstrates a lack of progress.  Often time, these paper-based reports line the wastebaskets of the school, and sometimes are sent home at a point that makes it too late for students and their parents to do much about it.  We have stopped waiting for the BCesis system utilized by schools in British Columbia, and most of our teachers are using a program that they can easily send home progress reports on a weekly basis.  Parents appreciate this because they can constantly keep track of their students, and teachers appreciate being able to keep parents in the loop.  One of our fabulous teachers makes his first assignment only submittable by parents!  This way he gets their emails right away.

3) Have an intervention system in place that gets parents involved as soon as their student is struggling:
A report card should never report something that a parent does not already know.  We put in an after school Academic Intervention system for students to complete missing learning outcomes that takes place after school Monday thru Thursday.  Part of this program involves teachers contacting parents at home so that they can be put into our AI program.  We use a referral slip that we send home with the student--if this doesn't work, many of our teachers will have the student use their cell phone in class to call the parents at home directly.  It is pretty neat, because parents always take calls from their student's phone.

4) Involve parents in the planning and goal setting for our school
This year, we created a School Improvement Plan Blog that allows our parents to see and be involved with the entire process of developing our SIP.  We feel that students, teachers and parents need to be shareholders in our plan, and to do that, they need to see and be a part of each step of its developent.

5) Make 5 positive phone calls per week to parents who don't expect it
I stole this from Chris Wejr, a great BC administrator.  He does it on Fridays, and what a great way to make a parent's (and your own) weekend.  If you want to have a tear come to your eye, listen to the unmitigated joy when a parent tells you "this is the first positive phone call that we have ever received". 

6) Provide information for parents that is useable, and will bring them back to your website.
Recently, I found a "Parent Guide to Facebook", and put it online and got some very good feedback.  Parents like things like this, but don't always have the time to go and find them.  Tutorial sites such as the Khan Academy, Wolfram Alpha, LearnNow BC and many others can help parents help their students as well.

7) Have an open door policy and MEAN IT.

 8) Find ways to loop in the parents of reluctant learners.
This is something that I still need to get better at, and constantly am looking for ideas.  If you have great ideas, I would truly appreciate your comments.

So collectively, let's make the 'one-night-per-semester' Parent Teacher Interview a thing of the past.  If we can overcommunicate with our parents so they are partners in our education, we will have better schools where parents feel like they are empowered partners in their child's education. 

Ultimately, our parents WILL trust us with their precious children.  But we need to connect and communicate with them first so they can participate in their child's education.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The reason why...

Early mornings.
Late nights.
Two minute lunch breaks.
Endless meetings.
Reluctant learners.
Tough parent phone calls.
Complicated problems.
Sleepless Sundays before staff meetings.
Constricting policies.
Insufficient resources.
Tight budgets.
Difficult conversations.
Withdrawing a student.
Dealing with hardship and poverty.
Coping with tragedy.

These are some of the things that each of us have to deal with when we are at our schools.  It can be messy, non-linear, chaotic, and continuous.  But the reason that I do what I do each day is because I have daughters.  They are young, and not yet in school.  But they are coming into the education system in which I work.  In which WE work. 

So despite all of these things that come at us at a blinding pace on a daily basis, I am a Principal because I believe that I can make a difference.  And I believe that YOU can make a difference, and together, WE will make a difference to this education system.  And we will make a difference to each one of the students that are out there.  Including my daughters.  And if you ever doubted how important daughters are to their dads, and how important dads are to their daughters, please watch the following (Kleenex required).

That's why I do what I do.  It's my reason, and I know that you have a similar passion for why you do what you do. And while all those things that make our job difficult can drag you down, it all pales in comparison to the reason we do what we do.

So on behalf of my daughters, I say "thank you" in advance for all that you do and why you do it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Failure doesn't teach kids, WE do.

I am a terrible cook.  While I DO consider myself to be a bit of a whiz on the barbeque (meaning I seem to be able to convince most guests to eat most bits of beef or processed meat that I churn out on the grill), I am not very talented when it comes to cooking of an indoor nature.  I am a heck of a dishwasher and cleaner-upper, and quite a housecleaner and lawn technician, so I do have some value in my household.  But make no mistake, I fail miserably when it comes to the culinary arts.

Imagine that you are cooking-challenged like me, but you have decided to surprise your spouse and make dinner.  Although you really despise cooking, your spouse is absolutely deserving of your efforts in trying to make a sumptuous meal. You carefully select a recipe, sneak out to buy the ingredients, and painstakingly follow each step laid out in the cookbook.  As the entree is baking in the oven, you set the table, shine the cutlery, try to fold the napkins into some sort of linen flamingo, and polish the wine glasses.  Candles and a twelve lemon centre piece, and it's all set.  You can't wait to see the look on your spouse's face because you have truly given this endeavor your all.

But imagine that when your wife comes home, the first comment she makes is "What stinks?".  She then walks up the stairs and says "I really needed those lemons, you know." when she looks at the table.  She comments on the fact that you used the cheap forks and knives, and that the wine glasses are actually the martini glasses and not suitable for the wine.  And when she sits down and samples the meal that you spent hours on your own trying to concoct especially to meet her needs and you ask her how she likes it, she turns and looks at you and says "I would give this meal a 3 out of 10.  I think you need to re-do it." 

How would you feel about cooking dinner in the future?  Imagine the special set of skills that you would need to call from your reserves to be able to rebound from this evaluation to want to come back and cook again for your spouse.  I am going to guess that even as a well-adjusted and confident adult, this single experience would haunt you (and your spouse) for years.  You failed at cooking dinner.

Recently, I saw someone tweet that we should "stop protecting kids from failure".  Statements like this make me angry.  Do you know which people tend to say things like this?  People who have experienced a great deal of success and very little failure in their lives.  Business people, doctors, lawyers, teachers, people who have "been through the school of hard knocks" and have made it through to the other side, they feel that somehow "failure is a great teacher".  They all say that things like "I experienced failure in my life, and it made me stronger!". 

I have a couple of thoughts about this.  Did these people really experience failure?  I'm not talking about flunking a spelling test or failing to get their Driver's License the first time around.  I am referring to repeated failure, every day.  Maybe not so harsh as the dinner experience above, but rather that you are a 3 out of 10, a 28 out of 100, that you "are not yet meeting expectations".  Or when something is explained in your class that everyone else seems to get and you don't get it.  Ever.  Or that one time that you put your heart and soul into a project, hours of your time to study for that test, or endless checking to make sure that lab is just perfect, only to get it back littered with red ink and that big "F" or "Re-do" on it, much like the dinner above.  Do people who say that we "learn from failure" mean THAT type of failure?  Maybe the quick retort here is "there are not that many students who experience THAT type of failure".  Really?  In the United States, there will be more than 1 million children that drop out of school this year.  Do you see a significant percentage of those having some sort of "A-ha" moment and heading back to school?  I don't.  Failure hasn't taught those students anything, and I am not sure how we would say that it has made any of them stronger.

The other thing that many people who postulate that failure is a good teacher forget is that often time, when they experienced "failure", they had a support network around them.  Perhaps they had caring parents with high expectations who had nurtured the appropriate assets so that they were resilient enough to be able to deal with failure.  They might have had a peer structure that stood by them motivated them to rebound from failing.  Or they were lucky enough to be in a school structure with a set of interventions that put a safety net under them to catch them when they fell through the cracks.   These cornerstones for dealing with adversity are often the very things that at-risk students lack in their own lives.

I think we need to put an end to the myth. Failure is not a teacher, WE are the teachers.  The act of failing is not motivating in the least, and if you think it is, just go ahead and try to recreate the dinner scenario above and see how that affects your relationship with your spouse. Failure teaches nothing.  It is a summative term, and we need to concentrate on the formative processes and stop labelling things as failures.  With respect to my dinner analogy, it is the hard-work and thought that really counted, and the learning that came from following the recipe and creating the meal.  That you didn't quite achieve the desired taste explosion is disappointing, however, with some guidance and encouragement, perhaps you would be willing to try again.

I would rather think of targets, guiding, and precision.  There is a target, but we can get there in many different ways.  Our job is to guide students towards that target, and to help make the arrows that they fire at the target more and more precise through a series of refinements that are always made with that final target in mind.  And WE are the ones who make "failure" an experience that students can recover from.  At a conference that I saw in Vancouver several years ago, Rick Stiggins made a very poignant statement--"It's not whether students hit the target we set for them today, it's whether they come back to try and hit the target again tomorrow."

Failure doesn't make at-risk students want to come back to hit that target tomorrow.  Failure is little more than a descriptor that comes moments after you quit.  I say protect kids from failure at all costs, because we never EVER want them to quit.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Best Attendance Policy Ever Created

Have you ever heard of students getting suspended for non-attendance?  I am ashamed to tell you that when I was a high school Assistant Principal, there were times when I did exactly this.  And I will never forget the conversation that I had with a parent who said  "So you're telling me that your response to a kid missing school is to have the student miss some more school?"  I didn't have a great answer to that one.  And I still don't.  And I would only venture to guess that lots of others like myself wouldn't have a great answer to this, and yet still, we suspend and remove kids from school for non-attendance.  It is because of my inability to come up with a cogent response to parents like this that I have made a very bold and oft-unpopular statement (especially from a high school Principal): I don't believe in attendance policies.

I guess that I should qualify that. I don't believe that attendance policies motivate or intimidate reluctant learners to come to school.  They might prevent reasonably successful students from an occasional skipped class.  But for those students who are chronic non-attenders, I would contend that many attendance policies do the opposite of what they intend.  They are often codified with labels such as "Step One Truancy", or "First Offence", and then ramp up quickly at a DefCon-style rate until they exonerate us from our collective responsibility to provide an education to every student.  And ultimately, they provide us with a means to remove students--the opposite of what I think attendance policies are thought to be able to do.

I would argue that no student ever dreamed of becoming a "skipper", or even worse a "drop out".  In kindergarten, students show up to school with that unabashed joy almost unparalled in education--they're there every day.  And yet somehow, when some students hit Grades 7, 8, and 9, their attendance patterns become a bit checkered.  As they move into their senior years, those same students show up less and less, until they make their way to the administrator's office, and the rest is...well, see the above paragraph.

I like golf. I like to play it, I like to practice putting, chipping, bunker shots, hitting my irons, and my driver.  I enjoy it so much that I live on a golf course, sometimes pay too much money for a round of golf, and have made my wife's eyes roll in to the back of her head because I like to play so often.  Thankfully, she likes golf too, and can understand my addiction to the sport. 

But imagine I didn't like golf.  Imagine that I tried it, and was really bad at it.  Maybe my dad took me for lessons, but each day I went, my instructor pointed out what I was supposed to do, but I still couldn't do it.  Perhaps my instructor then would then send home a report to my parents stating the obvious, that I wasn't getting any better.  At that point, he might tell me that compared to other golfers he was teaching, I was not all that good, and that I needed to practice more (what a revelation!).  But because of my lack of success after practicing in the past, I didn't enjoy practicing at all. Then, when I continued to get worse, he paid less and less attention to me, and paid attention to better golfers.  Everyone around me seemed to be getting better, or so I might have thought.  And since I wasn't really into golf in the first place, golf was not a priority.  Do you think that I would continue to golf?

Why are we surprised when reluctant learners don't attend?  Imagine that each day that you went to work, you were told that you are a failure, or substandard.  Maybe not overtly, but through "2 out of 10", a "C-", or "not meeting expectations".   Like my golf example, I myself would start to lose interest in showing up to school!

Maybe instead of suspending or removing students for non-attendance or spending our efforts trying to quantify or qualify why they are not attending (another meaningless exercise in futility), we need to spend our time on the only attendance policy that works: making schools and learning so engaging to kids that they want to be there EVERY day. 

How do we do it?  I couldn't agree more with an excellent blog post by Donald Grimshaw "Would kids attend your class if attendance was optional?" , in which he describes a classroom with a passionate teacher with high expectations, and a culture of student autonomy and engagement.  I believe we also need to meet kids at the door and find out what interests them, how they learn best, and involving them in their assessment so they can best demonstrate their learning.

But perhaps most importantly, we have to show that we CARE about our learners.  Getting to know  their name (don't laugh--it means a great deal, especially in a very large school), to know something them, what they do outside of school, or anything that gives us that in to say 'hi' and have a conversation so that student knows that you are interested in getting to know them as a young person.  When I get to know students, I don't want to disappoint them as their Principal, and I believe if they get to know me, they don't want to disappoint me either.

So rather than writing bigger, bolder and blacker-inked policies that punish reluctant learners, let's go with this policy:  WE WILL MAKE SCHOOL IRRESISTABLE.

I think that would be the best attendance policy ever created.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"I give up on the kids of today!"

"This generation is a lost cause.  They're lazy now, you know.  They don't work as hard as we did, as our parents did.  They're entitled, don't you think?  Never done an honest day's work.  Not like we did when we were young.  Kids have it easy these days.  Everything is served up to them on a platter, and they just sit there and it all comes to them.  They don't respect their elders, they don't respect anyone, never mind us educators.  They can't even talk any more!  They would just as soon text to eachother than have a conversation, and heaven forbid we ask them to really spell a simple word like gr8, 4COL! (that means "for crying out loud", by the way) And this music these days, effing this, and motherbleeping that--they don't even respect themselves! Gawd, if we would have had it as easy as kids do today, imagine what we would have done.  This "right now" generation isn't worth our time.  I give up!  I just hope the next generation is better."
Are comments like these familiar to you?  Do you ever have friends who are not in education ask you "how you do it?"?  Do you ever go to get your haircut, and when you tell people that you work in a school, you are subjected to an invective so intense that you are tempted just to go with the crew cut just to get out of there?  Well, my question to you is--as an educator, do you do the right thing?  Do you let society know the truth about students of today?

Over the past few weeks, I was asked by several students to write them letters of reference for various scholarships, bursaries, and university entrance applications.  As part of the process for me to write letters of reference, I have a form that each student fills which details the activities they have participated in which they are proud of over the last five years at our school.  After reading a dozen of these forms, I can tell you without equivocation that our world is in good hands. 

Each of these students
- is a scholar (95% average or greater with highly demanding course loads)
- is a mentor (to junior students in our school as peer tutors or members of our LINK crew)
- is highly involved in extra-curricular activities (ranging from being the leads in arts performances, to performing at Carnegie Hall, to playing in the Provincial Honour Band or Choir, to winning awards in visual arts, to playing on multiple varsity sports teams)
- is a leader (everything from participating in National Leadership Conferences, Provincial Student Voice, Encounters with Canada, Student's Council)
- is a social activist (by being involved in clubs such as Global Awareness, building schools in Peru, coordinating activities to raise thousands of dollars for HIV awareness in third world countries, and recycling all of the cans in our large school three times per week and donating the money to food banks)
- is a volunteer (at local hospices, food banks, youth camps and shelters for the homeless)
- is selfless and unwavering in their focus to make their school and their world a better place for everyone.

Even as I read this list back to myself, I realize how humbled I am by these students.  And I know that each of you has these students in your schools.  Where do they get the drive?  Where do they get the time?  Why didn't I do all of these things when I was a student?  And most importantly, why are we not telling the world about these students?

Now one might say, "Well, those are just your TOP students.  What about all the others?"  Those "others" are just as awesome.  They too participate in many of the above activities.  And they have jobs for 25 hours per week.  And they take care of their kid brother after school because mom and dad are at work. Plus they volunteer to scorekeep at volleyball games, decorate dances, and wear Santa hats on the last day before Christmas while delivering hot chocolate to classrooms for their teachers.  They shovel snow for elderly people in their PE classes, and bring guests to the office who might get lost in the school.  They are GOOD.  And we need to tell this to the public.

Some people choose to give up on this generation of students going through our K-12 education system.  That is their loss. I believe we should put our support behind them, walk beside them, learn from them, and cheer for them.   This generation WILL lead us through the quagmire of problems they have inherited (from US, by the way), including a fractured economy, a climate on the brink, world poverty, human rights issues, and a technological revolution that we can only pretend to grasp. 

So when people start to talk about "the kids of today", as educators, we need to do the right thing.  Let's stand up for our students and remind people that these "kids" in our schools that we can be so quick to castigate today are the ones that we will be COUNTING ON to solve the problems of tomorrow.