Thursday, March 30, 2017

Risk and Organzational Continuity

I've known so many fantastic math teachers. No offense to history instructors (I was one) but math and science teachers are so darn cool. Knowing great math teachers is important to me because I wasn't the strongest math student and I struggled in math classes year after year (I do enjoy the subject!!).

One of the best math teachers I've ever known is Heather Hayden. First, you can put aside technical math competency. She clearly has the "math" part of teaching math down. Many teachers have the "math" part down and are unfortunately, wholly inept when it comes to working in a classroom. So what makes her great? As a former high school teacher (and aspiring decent human being) aiming to emulate her greatness, I have given this a lot of thought. I am a "listing points kind of guy so here we go:

1. Passion. She clearly has passion for students, math, and math instruction. I am telling is obvious when you talk with her or watch her teach that she values a positive classroom culture. She loves kids and she deeply believes in their ability to learn math successfully. She doesn't even necessarily believe they should learn it for real-world application. Instead, they learn to love math because it is math. It is exciting and challenging and it pushes your brain to think in new and exciting ways. She was "growth mind-setting" before it was the "thing".

2. Innovative and Reflective: George Couros defines innovation as "new and better" time and time again in Innovators Mindset. She embodies this version of innovation. She doesn't have fancy bells and whistles in her class. The classroom actually looks rather traditional. But what you see is students excited and focused on math. Students unafraid to work with their teacher and to put in the effort to succeed. Her approach to innovation is to focus on always finding the best possible ways to instruct her students in math. She teaches, reflects, tinkers, teaches again, and so on and so forth. A textbook doesn't manage her instruction. The shiny new curriculum bundle, online math program, "rigorous" pacing guide, or latest conference dump don't sway her from her focus--high quality, responsive math practices that transcend educational waves.

3. Risk Taker: Heather is unafraid to share her mind with school leadership. While always respectful and always with an eye towards a solution, this can still be dangerous. It is easy to tag a critic as an obstructionist or someone who isn't a team player (she is clearly a team player and champion of her school, students, and peers). Heather always pushes back with an eye on her students success and with finding what actually works when it comes to fostering healthy math instruction.

While some would say we have moved/are moving away from the world of strict pacing guides, high stakes testing and accountability, and scripted instruction, not all leaders are forward thinking, Twitter addicts (because clearly you would be forward thinking if you're addicted to EDU Twitter). Many school leaders continue to cater to the lowest common denominator when it comes to school leadership. They look to make decisions about instruction that are centered on teachers who are struggling to find success and not on those who are innovative, passionate, and humbly successful.

Teachers who find ANY WAY instead of THE WAY must be celebrated, supported, and heard.

But this notion of "any way" is scary for organizations (schools, Districts, governments, companies, etc.). By nature, schools and school leaders have traditionally sought to respond to organizational failures (low student achievement, lack of student engagement, etc.) by creating systems that are focused on responses rooted in continuity. This is especially important when you think about the duty of the organization to ensure equitable access and in managing accountability, etc.

So I propose a path forward. If we want to create dynamic schools that produce college and career ready students, we must foster dynamic leaders who are able to ensure organizational continuity BUT never at the detriment of teachers who are truly grinding hard to find "a way" to make sure all students are successful. Celebrate those who are willing to take risks, to put in the work, and to champion all students. Support those teachers who need more and who are struggling to meet need. Remember, the day we drown out Hayden and the MANY risk-taking teachers (you know who you are), is the day we functionally give up on kids.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Whoa, slow the train down!

I always assume best intentions. It sometimes bites me in the behind but it is just who I am. So when a teacher seems like an obstructionist in the face of something new, I try to reflect on what is really in the way. Is it access to PD? Is it a fundamental disagreement with the change? Is it fear? Time?

What struck me in the latest part of Innovators Mindset was the thought of "over-implementing" or implementing change too fast.  If I think of this year, our District is implementing (or continuing to implement) several major initiatives. It is hard to choose a single focus when our students need so much. When you add initiatives that are important to a school, grade level, or teacher, it can be overwhelming for teachers. How do we encourage a passion for innovation without overwhelming our teachers? How do we avoid "dumping" (dumping may be the wrong word) too much on them?

I have many ideas on this but every year it always seems best laid intentions grow into a sizable number of tasks. Every year. This week, George asked us to make a video blog for the #IMMOOC. So, here it goes. It isn't perfect but my take on too much change at once:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Sickness or the Best Prescribed Medicine?

I told myself that I would refrain from all social media during spring break. I told myself that I would take a break and disconnect this week.

Well, no such luck. My “break” from Twitter was a matter of hours.

I am not sure what it is about Twitter.

It could be that I have met new people and have made both local and global connections, or it could be the encouraging quotes, motivating ideas, and inspirational videos tweeted and retweeted by members of my PLN. Possibly, it's that my thinking is confirmed, and also challenged, by like-minded people on Twitter. Maybe, it's the monthly FSUSD friendly competitions, or maybe, it’s the #IMMOOC blogs and chat. Quite possibly, it’s that I am able to share the amazing, innovative teaching strategies and student work in my school district, while at the same time, learn about new and exciting ideas from other districts. It could also be that I am introduced to new programs and websites while on Twitter, or that I am able to receive the highlights of current EdCamps or CUE Conferences that I am not able to attend. Maybe, it's the BreakoutEDU success stories, or maybe, it’s the numerous books that are recommended and highlighted on Twitter, such as Kids Deserve It!, The Innovator’s Mindset, Start Right Now, and most recently, Lead Like a Pirate. Yet, it may simply be the funny memes and the Warriors highlights.

Or…it is all of the above. One thing is for sure, I am hooked. 

Recently, I told a member of my PLN that our frequency on Twitter is a sickness. Perhaps, though, it is the best prescribed medicine.

The Bruce Dickinson” in the “More Cowbell” comedy sketch from Saturday Night Live tells the Blue Oyster Cult, "I got a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell." Well, in this case, I got a fever, and the only prescription is more Twitter.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Mirror

Those who stress the importance of failure as part of the innovation process tend to focus on failure.” This is not healthy and not where the focus should be. Failure is not the goal, however “having the freedom to fail is important to innovation.” Couros recognizes that failure is indeed a natural part of learning, but it’s not the actual failure that should be the focus, but rather the license to fail that should be encouraged. Giving our teachers this ability to feel comfortable taking risks with their lessons, to know that we support them in taking these risks, and to encourage them to engage in creative activities, that while those lessons may fail it could also enliven the learning process  and inevitably allow the teacher to run their classrooms in a direction that will spark innovation through focusing on the art of questioning, rather than answering.
From the moment teachers enter formal education, they are encouraged to teach students how to succeed. Everything that is done in the classroom is done with the hope that it will contribute to a student’s ultimate success. Students are taught the rules, expectations, and ideas that they are expected to know in order to be successful in the world. Teachers are encouraged to do whatever it takes to ensure that their students do not fail to learn what they have taught in the classroom, as well as support them in making as few mistakes as possible.
Although we do want our students to be successful, the pressure that is put on this success can often distract from the encouragement our staff may need to create lessons that push their students to think creatively, explore their possibilities, and maybe even get a little messy along the way. Learning does not occur in perfectly packaged environments where all students are listening and quiet and doing as they are told. Learning is an experience that happens through trial and error and through that process, can indeed, spark innovation.
What if lessons were designed in a way that students learned, alongside their teacher, that mistakes and misconceptions are not actually their failures or inabilities to understand or master material, but rather opportunities to begin to ask questions of oneself?  What if failure was viewed as being one step closer to success? What if we focused less on teaching our students everything they are expected to know but rather taught them how to become proficient questioners of any and all learning they encounter? What if our students were capable of seeing that simply coming up with an answer did not mean the problem was solved, but rather that the learning had just begun?       
“School should not be a place where answers go to die, but where questions come to life.” Couros speaks passionately about the art of questioning, but also recognizes that we learn to question by first establishing and understanding how grit and resiliency allows us to recover from our own perceived failures. When we learn to rise above our challenges, we begin to question what led to those mistakes in the first place and how we can correct them in the future. This type of thinking can lead our students towards establishing an Innovator’s Mindset where students have the chance to focus their efforts on creating, understanding, and innovating, where their learning  can be molded around these processes rather than being told what they are expected to learn. In these classrooms, our teachers require the support to allow their students to learn in an unrestricted environment where they can develop authentic conceptions of information that are not based on a pre-prescribed learning outcome, but rather on that real, authentic learning.
How can teachers foster this type of innovative thinking in their students? How can a site leader inspire, support and encourage our  teachers to attempt to completely change the way their classrooms look and feel, as well as the types of learning they produce?  How can we influence our teachers to take that first initial step to begin to focus more on questioning than answering, while still contributing to a student’s ultimate success?
Maker movements, STEAM labs, inquiry-based approaches, problem-based learning and other instructional approaches that relinquish control from the classroom teacher can not be successful without that idea in mind that yes, this too, could possibly fail. But what if that process of taking risks, failing, and learning from that failure created a symbiotic relationship of learning between teacher and student where the learning is happening together? What if the road to success in one class looks different in another class because the paths taken are different and therefore the learning that occurs is also different? What if this messy path to success creates a relationship between teacher and student where they are authentically learning together through every mistake they make, every question they ask, and every idea sparks curiosity towards a new one?
Yes, this is risky and there are no guarantees that this will work out perfectly.  Mistakes are bound to be made, but Couros encourages us, the leaders in this process of learning, to recognize that “Our job, sometimes, is simply to be the spark, help build confidence, and then get out of the way.” When we model for students, through looking into a mirror and reflecting on our mistakes, we help them seek those answers from within themselves rather than from us.  If we all fail together, we can grow together by trying again tomorrow, but this time with new and different inspiration.

Friday, March 17, 2017

They Won't Eat You Alive If You Dance

I've had an opportunity to work closely with dozens of educators. Very different educators. I get it...some teachers are just way more strict and rigid. And that is okay. They believe in setting strict boundaries with intricate rule routines and procedures. While it isn't my teaching style, I get it. YOU CAN achieve the same thing if you set clear expectations, give them a chance to understand/learn/practice those expectations, build strong relationships, show them you care and that you love them.  I promise your students won't eat you alive. Well, I pretty much promise.

Either way, no matter how you work to build a "safe, respectful, responsible" climate in your room, please don't strive to build compliance through instructional rigidity. So often, in the name of keeping the class under control, educators sacrifice an environment that fosters innovation and is rooted in student choice, creativity, and the critical "question finding" that George Couros discusses in The Innovator's Mindset. 

While it seems the whole education world knows it isn't okay, somehow, worksheets, pre-prescribed teacher manuals, "teacher centered" discussions, basic computer programs/apps, prescribed writing prompts and long lists of carefully crafted objectives (that kids can't even see) rule the day for many classes (yes, a lot less than even 4-5 years ago but still...). I've come to realize after so many observations that this type of class seems to be rooted in gaining "compliance over kids" but behind the veil of teacher as expert...or historically competent practices...or district mandates...or who knows. 

So if I've described your classroom (or your professional development practices as a principal), all I dream of is that you pivot one small step at a time. The pivot doesn't need to be a major change earthquake or fancy technology. Some very basic examples just from today/week/month that will help start the shift for those that are nervous about moving:

Instead of discussing objectives at the start of the lesson, ask the children to think about what the objective of the lesson was when the lesson is wrapping up. Let the students "question find" and critically think about the learning experience they just had.

Spend a whole day timing how much you talk vs. how much they talk for academic purposes. Let the data speak for itself. Or try to cover your mouth when they are having a discussion. Stop yourself from interjecting. 

Let them bring a personal mobile device for a day and provide a structure for them to use it with academic purpose. Tell them you trust them to use it appropriately. 

Do a breakout or some other type of challenge? Provide some structure and guidance but let them take their thinking and whatever recent math/science/language/history lesson you taught and apply it. Let them struggle a bit. Let them team. Let them compete. 

Buy a couple of actual sheep hearts to dissect instead of having them read a textbook and fill in some blanks on hearts. 

Take them outside to read, plant, jump, collaborate, build, race, think, challenge, or create.

Have them record a video Flipgrid describing the best (non-recess) moment of the day.

Teach mindfulness for a week and see what impact it has on how they interact and work together. 

Go ONE WHOLE week without using one worksheet. Not one. 

Give them time at least once next week where they can create/build/experiment with (or without) some structure. DO it in your classroom to show them making doesn't have to be in a special maker space.


DANCE with the whole class for 5 minutes. Let them pick a favorite (but appropriate tune). It's okay...I promise the instructional compliance police won't knock down your door. BUT, I PROMISE TO JOIN YOUR DANCE PARTY, ANYTIME!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Push the Button!

Just push the button!

"WHAT IF we believed that everything that we had to make great schools was already within our organizations, and we just needed to develop and share it?" I do believe! Everything we need DOES exist in our schools.

Poor and uneven funding , trauma, standardized testing, poor compensation...the list of "success barriers" is endless AND real. While I don't pretend to minimize any of these as things that need real solutions,  I contend that they don't really stand as true barriers. It is easy to fall into the trap (I do it often) of listing the reasons we aren't seeing the classrooms or student performance we dream of. But I have now worked in four very different schools that are resourced very differently and serve very different school populations. AMAZING teachers (and students) exist in all 4 schools. These teachers find unmatched levels of success. They are innovative practitioners (striving for new and better), risk-takers, creative thinkers,  resource hounds, true advocates for children, and tireless relationship builders. Some are firm and more "old-school" and some are the "new kids on the block". Regardless of teaching personality, they transcend excuse making and represent everything we need to make great schools.

BUT, it isn't every classroom for every child. And that isn't okay. Some of it rests with hiring and retention efforts. But as leaders, it really hinges on our ability to lead by mirroring the same qualities we want out of our staff.

What if we made a conscience effort to build personal relationships with each staff member?

What if we modeled staff PD and training that reflected the needs of adult learners and didn't replicate the instruction we DON'T want for our children?

What if we practiced mindfulness WITH our teachers and students?

What if we learned alongside our teachers and students?

What if we empowered staff and students to be problem finders and solvers?

What if we stopped saying and ACTUALLY PUSHED THE BUTTON!