Wednesday, November 2, 2016

What if we nurtured the right things and the right ideas?

Each morning for the past few weeks I have been reading a daily meditation from “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday (who has also authored “Ego is the Enemy” and “The Obstacle is the Way” which are fantastic reads in and of themselves.) This morning’s piece resonated deeply with me.
“The human being is born with an inclination toward virtue.”- Musonis Rufus, Lectures 2.7.1-2

The notion of original sin has weighed down humankind for centuries. In reality, we’re made to help each other and be good to each other. We wouldn’t have survived as a species otherwise… You were born good. “All of us have been made by nature,” Rufus said, “so that we can live free from error and nobly- not that one can and another can’t, but all.” You were born with an attraction to virtue and self-mastery. If you’ve gotten far from that, it’s not out of some inborn corruption but from a nurturing of the wrong things and the wrong ideas.
As an educator, do you still believe in the virtues of our profession? How often do you focus on the wrong things and nurture the wrong mindsets and attitudes? How often do you remain fixated on the wrong things and the wrong idea? Do you continue to seek self-mastery through continued growth and learning? Teaching is hard. But you were born good. And you were born to make a difference.

What if we nurtured the right things and the right ideas?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Are we building walls or cathedrals?

In his book “Start with Why”, Simon Sinek shares the following story of two stonemasons.

“You walk up to the first stonemason and ask, “Do you like your job?” He looks up at you and replies “I’ve been building this wall for as long as I can remember. The work is monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The stones are heavy and lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this project will be completed in my lifetime. But it’s a job. It pays the bills.” You thank him for his time and walk on.

About thirty feet away, you walk up to a second stonemason. You ask him the same question , “Do you like your job?” He looks up and replies, “I love my job. I’m building a cathedral. Sure, I’ve been working on this wall for as long as I can remember, and yes, the work is sometimes monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The stones are heavy and lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this project will be completed in my lifetime. But I’m building a cathedral.”

WHAT these two stonemasons are doing is exactly the same; the difference is, one has a sense of purpose. He feels he belongs. He comes to work to be a part of something bigger than the job he’s doing. Simply having a sense of WHY changes his entire view of his job. It makes him more productive and certainly more loyal. “ (p 94-95)

In all of the rhetoric surrounding the successes and failures in public education today, a lack of true purpose or vision is the thread that ties and connects us all. Successful schools and successful school systems put the WHY first. And rarely is that WHY an external measure of success.
In the state of Pennsylvania, all schools receive an SPP score. That score is supposed to be an indicator of the success of that school. It is used as an accountability measure.  It can either be a point of shame or a point of pride. But what if it were neither?   What if it were just a number?
As educators, we often rail against “business” mindsets creeping into our language and cultures because we do not create products or widgets, we help others to learn and grow. Yet a book like Sinek’s remind us that success always comes from a focus on people and vision, not on the bottom line. If the bottom line in education is test scores, focusing on them may yield short term results with long term consequences. Evidence of that is clear in the hypocrisy of principals and teachers who hold up standardized test scores as evidence of their success when they meet or exceed the goal, while minimizing and dismissing them when they fall short. This type of thinking requires no one to change or consider how to grow themselves. And it’s pervasive these days.
Test scores are a byproduct of learning. They can not and should not be the goal. This is true of accountability as well, as it is a byproduct of responsibility. When we are responsible to the people in our classrooms and schools, the accountability will take care of itself because all members of the community believe in the WHY and are then responsible for the HOW's and WHAT's being taken care of. Ask yourself this: do test scores and accountability get you out of bed in the morning? No teacher goes into teaching as a profession for these purposes and they sure don't jump out of bed ready for their days with these goals in mind either.
In order for this to change, anyone who considers themselves a leader has to take a hard look in the mirror and determine if their district, school, and/or classroom has a true “WHY”. Has the WHY been communicated well? Do members of the organization and/or classroom believe in the WHY? Do they support the WHY? Do they trust the WHY? Do we filter all of the HOW’s and WHAT’s through that WHY?
And it's at this point where most of us will make some broad assumptions. We are clear on our WHY and we will assume that others are too. Are we willing to ask our stakeholders directly? Are we willing to use data/ metrics (that aren't test scores) to verify that our WHY is driving the work we ALL do? Are we willing to be faithfully reflective by comparing the culture we hope to have with one we actually have?
Whether we will admit it or not, all of us want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We all want to have a purpose. We all want to have value. And we all want to be proud. Yet our actions often fall short of these desires. It would be easy for each member of an organization to lay blame elsewhere. In fact, many of us do. Blame is laid at the hands of colleagues, principals, parents, district offices, legislatures, and sometimes sadly, kids themselves. Whether we like it or not, being a leader means being responsible for motivating and  inspiring those within the community/ organization to be passionate about the WHY.  This is as true in the (school) board room as it is in the classroom.
Yet if we all view ourselves as leaders in some capacity (and we should) , we have to question which stonemason we wish to be, and which one we are right now.   There is little argument that teaching is more difficult and complicated than it has ever been. Yet each of us have the power to think differently about those challenges. Are we in it for the job or are we in it because it’s a vocation (our one true calling)?  Are we teaching math or Matthew (Thanks Baruti Kafele)? Are we teaching stuff or designing learning experiences? Are we creating test takers or  growing learners?  Are we creating compliance or critical citizens? Are we creating consumers or producers? Are we creating apathy or hope?   Are we creating barriers or removing them? Are we building walls or are we building cathedrals?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

What if we listened to Daniel Tiger?

If you are around young children, you no doubt know Daniel Tiger and his neighborhood friends. And if you grew up with Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. you will certainly know this cast of characters from the Land of Make Believe. My son Justin, who is two, loves Daniel Tiger,  Katerina Kittycat, O the Owl, and the rest. As parents, we love the messages the show sends and creates wonderful opportunities to talk, share, learn, and grow together as a family.  In fact, there is some research that indicates that Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood can actually help our preschooler to develop stronger empathy and social skills through viewing.

While it's certainly easy to tune out when hearing a song like "Find a Way to Play Together " when you've heard it for the umpteenth time, I have actually found myself paying attention to the lyrics. This could be because Justin has started to sing along and it helps me to make sense of what he is actually singing. It could also be because I just can't tune it out any longer.

Even though there are parents out there who may not like Daniel Tiger, I think we can all agree that he's not nearly as bad as Caillou.

When I was younger, I read a book called "All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum. Essentially, it was a collection of essays reminding us that we overcomplicate our lives and that we should embrace being present with one another. I found it poignant then and still often think about how much of our adult lives would be better spent trying to embrace those social-emotional lessons that were the heart of preschool and kindergarten learning.

In many ways, I have found that same poignancy in the songs and messages of Daniel Tiger.  It's easy to dismiss a cartoon and songs as "just for kids", but I will argue that the vitriol and lack of common courtesy and kindness this election cycle has produced should be proof positive we need to listen to Daniel and his friends. Being nice to one another, being able to disagree without being disagreeable, and sharing ideas with one another are just as important for adults. Check just about any message board or facebook post and it should be alarmingly obvious it may be MORE important for adults.

As educators, there are tons of great messages too. In an era of misguided and harmful policy and implementation, it can be hard to find much worth holding onto. Yet, Daniel reminds us that  Friends Help Each Other, Yes They Do!, and that When Something Seems Bad, Turn It Around and Find Something Good!. He also explains that When We Do Something New, Let's Talk About What We'll Do and that we should Stop, Think, and Choose.

My intention is not to diminish the professionalism of teachers by referencing a show for pre-schoolers. Teaching has become a complicated minefield of challenges and difficulties and those who are not in schools do not necessarily understand how different the politics of teaching is today compared to 15 years ago.  Statistics tell us that fewer and fewer college graduates are entering the teaching profession and morale is at an all time low. And any teacher who hears Daniel sing   When you have to go Potty, Stop and Go Right Away! is silently laughing to themselves because they recognize they chose  a profession which hardly allows for bathroom breaks or even a lunch break that does not involve supporting students, making parent phone calls, or answering the plethora of emails mounting in their inbox.

As we begin a new school year, my hope for teachers everywhere is to be a little bit like Daniel Tiger. Remember what it felt like to learn with your friends, to play, to imagine, to wonder, and to look for the good in everything.  Bring that type of joy and learning to your classroom.

What if we listened to Daniel Tiger?

Monday, August 15, 2016

What if we treated every day like the first day of school?

Although the students in our district are not officially starting for two more weeks, today was my "first day of school" as I, along with several of my colleagues, begin to work with the new teachers to our district.  And although I do not formally teach students I still found myself struggling to fall asleep last night and rising early this morning in anticipation and excitement.

A few hours ago, a group of diverse, excited, nervous, and anxious new colleagues walked through the door ready to begin their learning journey here. Most of them have taught before. Some of them are brand new to the profession. Some of them will be here next year. Some of them will be elsewhere in new opportunities. 

The first day with new teachers is a whirlwind. The first week with new teachers in our "academy" can be intense. But it also creates an opportunity to forge new relationships and establish our own little culture of support that leads into a job-embedded instructional coaching model. As a teacher myself, I am grateful that we have the opportunity to lead and learn alongside these new colleagues. 

I can't help but find myself wondering around the following questions. 
  • How will our community develop?
  • How will they fit into the community of their school?
  • How will they fit into the community of our district?
  • How will they grow as teachers and leaders?
  • How will they grow as learners?
  • How will they change our community and culture for the better?

In two weeks, our students will walk into their classrooms and into the communities they create. I have no doubt that these teachers will share my nervous excitement.  I hope that between the significant worries over rules and procedures and routines,   that they too will be wondering about community and learning. 

The first days of school are always an exciting time, full of hope and promise. Students are eager to learn, teachers are eager to teach. Everyone is excited for the new opportunities and challenges ahead of them. Optimism and joy seep out of classrooms into the hallways and beyond. The best teachers are the ones who make those feelings last through the holiday season and far past the  testing season.  

What if we treated every day like the first day of school? 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

What if we were passionate about passion?

One of my favorite books of all time is Sir Ken Robinson's "The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything". It is my go-to book when I am in need of inspiration and a reminder of the conditions for learning we need to ensure we create. This book resonates with me as an educator but also personally because of our need as humans to be inspired, to drive towards greatness, to pursue our passions, and to hone our talents as life-long learners.

I fundamentally believe the major failure of public education is that we have consistently and continually told students what to learn and how to learn it without consideration for their own personal talents and passions. For most, the fundamental purpose of schooling is to create productive members of society. And while that is an important goal, it is considerably limiting. It is limiting because the transaction of school is continuously one-sided and the focus is on what we want instead of what is best for one another.  It is also limiting because if we afforded students the latitude to learn as they needed, about what they wanted, and focused on learning about the things they were most passionate about, we would be developing more productive members of society anyway.  This is the same argument about achievement and learning. When we allow achievement to be the measurable goal, we are ignoring the greater potential of learning.  When our students are master learners, we will see measurable growth through just about every metric.

As adults, despite being successful, we often are not afforded the time and space to follow our passions. Our careers, family, and life circumstances become our primary focuses.  And the resentment of not being able to do the things we love may manifest in statements to our kids and students such as "life isn't always about fun and games" or "You can't always do what you want" (Thank you Rolling Stones!)  But what if we changed our message? What if our schools were built around passion? 

What if we were passionate about passion? 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

What if we stopped talking about change and embraced it?

Image result for business change quotes

So much of what happens in school and in classrooms revolves around the concept of change. There are those who are frustrated that change isn't happening fast enough. There are those who are upset that it seems to be happening too fast. But these conversations are often just that... conversations. They miss the point. 

I love to be in the ocean. There is a place, just off the shore, where the crashing waves are just loud enough to drown out most of the screams of excitement on the beach. It is the place where the undercurrent pulls us out a little further from the shore than we might be comfortable with. Sometimes it is at this point where the water is just deep enough for us be able to touch our toes, but we are most likely treading water. It is also at this point where we realize that the waves forming beyond us will force us to make a choice. That choice is to either ride that wave in towards the beach  or be completely enveloped by the impending wave. We can try and hold out, avoiding them, but they will continue to grow and they will continue to come. Change, like the wave, can't be controlled, but it can be navigated. It can also completely swallow us up. 

Change is  never easy. It is by its nature, a process of growth and evolution. It is inevitable and unavoidable. Frequently, we pretend that if we ignore change long enough, we can stop it.  But in doing so, we often miss how drastically different the landscape has shifted around us.   Many of our schools and classrooms are dangerously in peril of becoming not just ineffective at preparing the next generation for the world around them, but also becoming completely obsolete. We must decide whether we want to spend our time talking about how much pain change will cause us or whether we want to focus on how beautiful we can make our classrooms and schools for our students. 

What if we stopped talking about change and embraced it?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

What if we designed our learning spaces for learning?

Recently I had the opportunity to spend some time in a showroom focused on school furniture. Along with traditional school furniture, there were many other alternatives that embraced the flexible learning spaces that our students deserve. The showroom had colors, fabrics, multi-use chairs and tables, and utilized wall space as whiteboards through the use of whiteboard paint.  It was hard to not feel inspired by the use of space and design. All I wanted to do was begin to draw on the walls and the many other spaces meant for people to leave their mark.

Ultimately, the conversation led to cost and budgets. They then led to whether we were preparing students for colleges which have not necessarily embraced these types of learning spaces. Conversations also revolved around the need to have spaces for students to take the multitude of state tests and their ridiculous requirements, and lastly, the reality of the structure and limitations of the size of the classrooms that currently exist.

At one point I found myself mumbling under my breath "Why can't we ever, just once, start from the potential of the learning space?"

It would be easy to take each of these factors and toss them out the window as complaints, but they aren't. They are the current reality of many schools and educators which are still structured for the 20th-century factory model of schools.   It can be challenging to envision learning spaces that are flexible, colorful, and design focused when we are stuck in schools that resemble factories both inside and out. And while it is a chicken and egg scenario, the limitations above can sometimes keep educators from taking risks.

Consistently public schools are "stuck" trying to serve higher education through outdated, highly structured, and content driven curriculum, focus on achievement on tests like the SAT and AP, and even instructional strategies such as the lecture. The domino effect implications of higher education expectations consistently shape and limit the learning potential in public schools across the United States. At the same time, public schools rarely have the courage to buck the system and build schools and design classrooms for the instruction, culture, and academics our students deserve.

The furniture discussion is just a microcosm of how preparing students for college and career readiness place ceilings on learning for our students.   It is also the place where we have been attracted to the bells and whistles which lead to wasteful spending instead of thoughtful design. Every classroom with an interactive projector, class sets of laptops and tablets must be a place where learning occurs, right?  It is easy to be distracted by the gigantic interactive tv's that will be obsolete in two years or the computer enabled tables that provide little to no collaborative learning experiences for our students.  We set our sights on things instead or processes, devices instead of learners.

In so many ways, whiteboard walls (or just large whiteboards in general), magnetic walls (better yet, magnetic whiteboards), or lots of corkboards can transform a classroom space with very little waste in expense. The focus should always be on the design process and the learning that occurs, not on the expensive technology or furniture. New furniture is nice and can change the culture and vibe of space, but until we remember that the most important person in the room IS the room, we may never see the kind of learning we hope to see.

While school board, administrator, and teacher perspectives are incredibly important, decisions on furniture, devices, and other resources often leave out the most important stakeholders. As we were driving back from the showroom, our tech director (@kuzojoe) asked the most important question of all: "What kinds of learning spaces do you think our students would want? What kinds of furniture would they like to have? "

What if we asked our learners how they wished to learned? What if we designed our learning spaces for learning?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What if we valued curiosity?

Along with many awesome things he shared today, George Couros (@gcouros) made the following statement in his #pete2016 keynote:

"If a child leaves our schools less curious than when they started, we have failed." - G. Couros

This might be the greatest condemnation of most schools or school systems.  How many of us can truly claim, let alone quantify, that a majority of our students graduate more curious than when they started as a child?

The dictionary definition is pretty fantastic in that it defines curiosity as a strong desire to know or learn something. I guarantee there are a plethora of  district mission statements out there that use the phrase "life-long learner" and yet do not consider how their  policies, choices, and actions completely drain the curiosity out of their children.   Grading practices, teacher focused instructional practices, and heavy-handed curriculum emphasizing coverage over learning are all examples of things completely in our locus of control  which  remove the love of learning from our students. 

Sadly, the second definition of curiosity is more of the norm in our classrooms and schools. Far too few of us are embracing student driven learning through passion/project/problem based learning.  We continue to complain about the disengaged and distracted learners amongst us while not acknowledging our own culpability in killing the love of learning.  When Will Richardson writes about the nostalgia for school, he is referring to our consistent faith and belief that our own schooling wasn't so bad.  To those who think it wasn't so bad, ask yourself this question: How many times did you get to choose what you wanted to learn, in the ways you could learn best, and show what you learned in the way that was determined by you, the learner? Did any of your schooling reflect the type of learning you do as an adult? Me neither.

Many of us chuckle when we see memes like this:

 Are we still laughing when it says this? 

I believe that our job as educators is to empower our students to be eternally curious. They can't be curious sitting behind a desk. And they certainly can't be curious when we are constantly telling them what to think, do, or say.  

Our classrooms and schools are a direct reflection of what we value.
What if we valued curiosity? 

Monday, February 22, 2016

What if we stopped complaining and started doing?

I had an opportunity to meet and speak with someone whom I have long admired today. George Couros writes and reflectively shares his thoughts on leadership and learning on his blog, through social media  (@gcouros) and in his book  "The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity". What I have often admired about George is that he writes and speaks practically, openly and honestly. He blogs often. He makes time to reflect and he makes time to lead through building relationships.

It's been awhile since I have attended an ed-tech conference for a multitude of reasons, but chief among them is what I have perceived as the increased "self-promotion" of individuals and the exploding capitalism of learning by ed tech companies. Around every corner, there is always a person or product willing to take your money and solve your problems for you. There is also no shortage of people who will showcase how amazing and transformative something is without actually being able to provide evidence of the impact on student learning.   This is also one of the reasons why I have shied away from the use of social media altogether in recent months.

Meeting George face to face actually gave me a sense of guilt and shame because he is one of those people who I believe actually walks the talk. My shame stems from the fact that I often don't make the time to write and reflect. My guilt stems from the fact that I don't participate and share the way I believe we all have an obligation to do. Sadly, I spent most of the early parts of our conversation complaining about lots of things instead of engaging in meaningful conversation.  As I became aware of my overt negativity, we chuckled and George even commented that I should change my twitter handle to @bitchychad. ( I looked it up and no one has used it yet. Maybe we can get it trending.) But in that moment, I also realized how much time and energy I have wasted complaining instead of doing.  Even in a moment such as this, instead of focusing on potential, instead of learning about how to be the change, instead of learning from someone with expertise, I was fixated on sharing my frustrations. I can't say it was one of my prouder moments.

This realization has implications on my perceptions of social media and conferences. When we only see the negative, when we only see the problems, we miss the beauty and the opportunities all around us. I often think of a white sheet of paper with a tiny black dot in the middle of it. How often do we focus on the black dot instead of the vast, white, clean paper ready to be transformed?   How often do we only see the negative in our classrooms, schools, or communities? How much time do we spend focusing on the problems instead of celebrating and working at the opportunities in front of us?

And if I am being truly open and honest, I think it's how many of us waste a lot of our time and energies. We consistently kick the can down the alley: blaming others, blaming our circumstances, and blaming the system.  There is no doubt that there are hurdles to overcome. There is no doubt that there are systems in place that make it challenging. But they aren't impossible circumstances to overcome and the hurdles aren't impossibly high to get over. We have to stop admiring the problems. For some of us, it would mean we might have to admit that we aren't good enough yet. For others, we would have to acknowledge that it is going to take a lot of work to get to where we want to be. And for others still, it would mean looking deeply at why we are avoiding moving forward.

Tomorrow, I am excited that George will keynote #petec2016 and spend some time sharing many of his thoughts, ideas, and perspectives on leading and learning in funny, engaging, and provocative ways. And I will listen, not focused on what can't or won't happen, but by recognizing that there is potential for every student, every teacher, every administrator, every board member, and every parent and community member to do amazing things for our schools and our community.  I hope to get him to sign his book for me, even if he does sign it  "for @bitchychad".

What would we gain if we stopped complaining and just started doing together?