Tuesday, January 28, 2020

What can educators learn from Kobe?


I need to say right up front that Kobe was not my favorite basketball player.  It may be my age, but I always was, and always will be, a Jordan guy.  I did always have a healthy respect for Kobe, mostly because he always struck me as a player that truly respected the game and tried to play it the right way.  However, after reading and listening to so much over the last couple of days since his tragic death,  my respect for him has grown tremendously.  I have found myself wondering why.  Why does a basketball player have such a tremendous, positive impact on so many people all over the world?  And if we somehow could understand and harness that impact, maybe we (as mere mortals) could have that kind of influence as well.   

MAMBA MENTALITY:
The first thing that almost everyone mentions in recollecting on Kobe Bryant is his relentless, killer instinct. They call it the Mamba Mentality.  Now, "killer instinct" might not often be used to describe educators, but the great ones are most definitely relentless in their pursuit of excellence.  They do not quit and they do not accept failure from anyone; themselves, their students, or their peers.  Kobe was like that.  If there was ever a criticism about his game, it was that he didn't pass enough, but when things got tight at the end of games, he knew he was the best player on the court and he had the confidence to do what was necessary to help his team win.  John Hattie and Peter DeWitt have made the terms "self-efficacy" and "collective efficacy" common terms among educational leaders with the idea that if we believe we can make a difference, then we often will.  Kobe's confidence and "self-efficacy" also translated to leadership.  That leadership gave his team the "collective efficacy" it needed to achieve greatness.  They often won simply because they believed they would. Check out this link from the ESPYs!



WORK ETHIC:
Kobe Bryant's work ethic is legendary.  Almost everyone who achieves greatness in any field shares this trait, but even among his peers, Kobe stood out.  He was known to push his teammates harder than their coaches.  One legendary story has Kobe taking away his personalized "Kobe shoes" from players because their work ethic (not their play) did not meet the standard necessary to wear them.  The players got the message. In the video clip below, Kobe starts with a simple, but telling phrase: "If I have to fight you to get in the gym, that is a problem."  Every school I have ever seen has teachers and administrators that work very hard. What often transforms campuses to greatness is the influence these hard-working, over-achievers have on the rest of us.  Do you have an environment where slackers can get by because someone else is doing more work than they should or does everyone pull their weight? Do you have to fight them to "get in the gym" (PLC, professional development, etc.)  Kobe was not afraid to work hard, but he also challenged others to match his commitment or get left behind.  Countless players (in various sports) this week have talked about how he made them better just by modeling his work ethic.  That is leadership.



TRANSCENDENT:
Finally, I wanted to look up this word to make sure I have the definition right in my mind.
adjective- going beyond ordinary limits; surpassing; exceeding.
superior or supreme.
Theology(of the Deity) transcending the universe, time, etc.
Philosophy.
  1. Scholasticism. above all possible modes of the infinite.

I think it helps answer my original question of why does a basketball player have such a profound impact on the world.  It's not just his extraordinary basketball talents.  It's any person that goes beyond what is expected and does things that seem impossible.  All of us respond to greatness and most of us respect it, even if we are not fans.  Kobe Bryant was transcendent.  We will miss him.  #RIPKobe



Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Do Be A CRAB! Push others to the TOP!

Have you ever worked with people that go out of their way to make sure new things don’t work?  They don’t want to put in the extra effort it might take to get ahead, either because they are afraid of failure or they are content to do things the way they have always been done.  I have worked on campuses, where teachers were actually ostracized for going “above and beyond”!  Simple things like gaining praise for a great newsletter, an extra parent call, or even enthusiastically participating in professional development can sometimes make others jealous or even resentful.  In some places, this is called the “Crab Mentality”.  The crab mentality is a natural phenomenon that even scientists can’t explain, but it almost never fails.  You see, if you have a bucket of crabs, they easily have the capability to climb out of the bucket and save themselves, especially if they work together.  But they will not.  Sometimes the crabs seem almost malicious. They climb over one another and even work to pull those that appear to be making progress towards success downward to the group.  They are not interested in others success. 

We should all be on guard for the Crab Mentality. Even at schools with great culture and climate, it can creep in and pull others down.  Look around your own campus and your peers….I am willing to bet that everyone there is working hard and trying their best.  However, I also believe that there are a few that stand out. Maybe it’s the way they teach a lesson with a smile, they make even lunch duty fun, or they have a way of getting along with that student/parent than no one else can seem to reach.  The question is, what is keeping them from falling into the crab mentality?  And more importantly are you one that is pushing them upward or pulling them down.


 The crab mentality is a reflection of the famous saying “we all like to see our friends get ahead, but not too far ahead.” Learning to recognize the crab mentality in yourself and others is a very good idea, especially in schools.  Our schools need teachers that “get out of the bucket” to seek adventure and try new things, not groups that are holding them back.  Don’t be a crab!!
Have you ever worked with people that go out of their way to make sure new things don’t work?  They don’t want to put in the extra effort it might take to get ahead, either because they are afraid of failure or they are content to do things the way they have always been done.  I have worked on campuses, where teachers were actually ostracized for going “above and beyond”!  Simple things like gaining praise for a great newsletter, an extra parent call, or even enthusiastically participating in professional development can sometimes make others jealous or even resentful.  In some places, this is called the “Crab Mentality”.  The crab mentality is a natural phenomenon that even scientists can’t explain, but it almost never fails.  You see, if you have a bucket of crabs, they easily have the capability to climb out of the bucket and save themselves, especially if they work together.  But they will not.  Sometimes the crabs seem almost malicious. They climb over one another and even work to pull those that appear to be making progress towards success downward to the group.  They are not interested in others success. 

We should all be on guard for the Crab Mentality. Even at schools with great culture and climate, it can creep in and pull others down.  Look around your own campus and your peers….I am willing to bet that everyone there is working hard and trying their best.  However, I also believe that there are a few that stand out. Maybe it’s the way they teach a lesson with a smile, they make even lunch duty fun, or they have a way of getting along with that student/parent than no one else can seem to reach.  The question is, what is keeping them from falling into the crab mentality?  And more importantly are you one that is pushing them upward or pulling them down.


 The crab mentality is a reflection of the famous saying “we all like to see our friends get ahead, but not too far ahead.” Learning to recognize the crab mentality in yourself and others is a very good idea, especially in schools.  Our schools need teachers that “get out of the bucket” to seek adventure and try new things, not groups that are holding them back.  Don’t be a crab!!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Students as Curriculum Designers? Why not ask the experts?


I was asked this week about some ways to empower students.  It seemed pretty simple at first, but upon reflection, I wondered if some of the traditional ways truly impact the learning environment and empower students they way we hope they would.  There are countless ways to give students a voice in the classroom and on the campus, but some thoughts I had on how students could impact themselves and future students is by getting them involved in the teaching and learning on the campus.

Great teachers empower students.  Period.  They do it in a variety of ways, and sometimes they can’t even describe how they did it, but great teachers and great schools empower students to own their own learning. This is the essences of empowerment.
The students of 2020 have perhaps the greatest experience in schools in history when compared to any previous generation.  The resources, thanks to technology, are almost limitless, and the emphasis on student-choice and social emotional learning have created classrooms and schools that are designed to engage students and make the learning experience meaningful to each individual child.   Is it working?  Yes and No.  There is no doubt that many classrooms around the nation have transformed from the traditional rows of desks and teacher lectures to a more inviting learning environment of flexible seating and student choice, but is it having a real impact on student learning?  Have the lessons and tasks really changed or have we just made the kids more comfortable?
I believe one of the best places to look for true empowerment of students is to solicit their feedback and reflections after the lessons have taken place.  As educators, we often spend precious hours of planning time to try and create lesson choices that will entice students and stimulate their minds so they will be interested and engaged.  Think about how much time could be saved if we had a few students around the table joining the teachers in a PLC to give feedback on previous lessons and input on upcoming units. Give your students, not just your top students, but the struggling ones as well, as chance to give you feedback on the tasks in your classroom or even your teaching style.  And here is a little secret, students do not hold back near as well as adults do.  You want to know the truth, ask a kid.   
As educators, formative assessment is something that is stressed at every level as the best way to monitor student progress, but what if we truly empowered students to formatively assess our curriculum and instruction?  We might not want to hear what they have to say!  As a middle school principal, I once had a group of students tell me, “If you want to LEARN you take this teacher, but if you want to have FUN you take this one.”  Originally, I was baffled by their candid answer, but I have used that example many times over years to make the point that “Kids Know”.  They know who pushes them and who lets them slide.  They know when they can turn in less than their best effort and when they must do their best.  If we want to get better, we should give them a seat at the table and make them a part of professional collaboration.  How in the world could that happen?  In a few easy steps:
1.       Individually- Create a system in your classroom where students give you regular feedback on your teaching and the tasks you assign them (you may or may not have control over the tasks you give).  If you keep a reflective learning journal, this is a great place to take notes to formatively improve the next lesson or change the task for next year.
2.       Campus or PLC- Invite a small, but diverse group of students to your grade level/department PLC.  Don’t put them on a stage as a panel, which is often fake and kids see through fake, but instead give them an equal seat at the table. You might have to train them a bit so they realize what lesson planning and curriculum mapping is all about, but they will catch on quickly.  Don’t do it a once.  Commit to making the group a regular part of the discussion for at least a six to nine-week grading period.  If they are with your PLC that long, they should experience lesson design, reflection of lessons/units, data dives, etc. Basically, a full learning cycle.  After that, switch to a different group.
3.       District- A larger commitment might be to invite a group of students that just completed an entire course to be part of a district level curriculum writing team.  Who better to share what was good and bad about Algebra than the students that just completed the course? Think of the power of hearing about the same lesson from three or four kids from different schools. It has the potential to help with curriculum alignment and calibration.  
I have five kids spanning from a kindergarten student to a junior in high school and everyone of them will tell you what they liked about school and what they didn’t.  When pressed, the older ones will tell you what lessons were challenging and which ones were “busy” work.  They will tell you what they remember from several years ago and what lessons had the biggest impact on their learning. KIDS KNOW.
Imagine the impact over time on the learning environment if we spent more time letting the kids help us design the lessons?  It is a different paradigm then simply differentiating a lesson and letting kids have “student choice” over a few activities all designed by adults. Its challenging but it is a way to truly have students own their learning in a way that adults cannot.  Be bold and give it a try!


Sunday, August 12, 2018

A - F rankings, Why I still don't agree with them, but now I feel guilty about it!

About a year and a half ago, somewhat out of frustration, I posted the blog below about my own kids' experience at schools that somehow didn't make the grade in the Texas accountability system.  The post must have struck a nerve with some people because it got over a half-million views!  That was pretty big stuff for someone whose normal posts reach about 400!  I was interviewed by several publications and the State Commissioner for Education, Mike Morath, even gave me a call to congratulate me.  The response was almost universally positive, save for a few comments from those that classify educators as whiners.  Unfortunately, the discussion was short lived and we all went about our business. Our schools and students kept doing great things, parents kept supporting our schools, and it seems there remains a group committed to showing our schools are not doing a very good job.  Some things never change.

Fast forward to present day.  In the past couple weeks, perhaps in preparation for districts' A-F ratings to go public, a number of high ranking school administrators, many of whom I call friends,  have come out against the rankings and are pleading for a better system.

TASA Issues Statement on Accountability

Educators Don't Agree With A-F

While I could not agree more with the countless educators sharing their views on the accountability system, I can no longer solely blame our Commissioner or even our Legislature without also looking in the mirror at wasted opportunities.  The State has given us small glimpses of hope that it would be willing to offer changes, but I do not think we have taken full advantage of the opportunities.  That is where my own guilt comes from.  We don't need the State system to certify the quality of our schools.  What we need is to place value on the multiple measures for which we advocate.  It is not enough to say the system is unfair.  We have to commit to offering a better solution.

Wasted Opportunities:


In 2011, House Bill 1157 called for districts to apply to be part of the Texas High-Performing Schools Consortium.  My own district was 1 of 22 accepted and the group began to work together to share lessons learned and forge a new path for education.  At the premise of these discussions was the concept of Community Based-Accountability.  Many of us worked with our own stakeholders to create multiple measures to assess our schools.  Here lies the hurdle that many of us can't seem to get past: We are still receiving an annual ranking from the state and while the belief in the locally controlled, multiple measures was strong, so was the pull of having to perform well on a one-day, one test accountability system. The information and desire is still strong as witnessed by the Future Ready Schools website, but we have yet to gain the kind of traction needed for true public acceptance.

Student Centered Schools

Next came House Bill 5 in 2013.  This well publicized bill generated lots of discussion and feedback around the five student endorsement plans designed to have students college and career ready, a far less discussed portion of the bill actually gave the opportunity for schools and districts to finally rate themselves on something other than test scores.  It outlined eight domains that would allow for multiple measures and, yes this is the amazing part, districts would be allowed to set their own system for evaluation!!

·      Fine Arts
·      Wellness & Physical Education
·       Community & Parent Involvement
·       21st Century Workforce Development Program
·       Second Language Acquisition Program
·       Digital Learning Environment
·       Dropout Prevention Strategies
·       Educational Programs for Gifted & Talented Students

It was finally here, locally controlled accountability over multiple measures. 2013-2014 was the first year the system was reported to PEIMS and districts not only were able to create their own measurements, they only had to pick three of the eight.  What happened next might could have been predicted, but it was very unfortunate.  We, as educational leaders, did not take full advantage of this opportunity.  Well over 90% of the districts gave themselves perfect scores.  Little time was put into the development of true measures and when the student achievement didn't match the exemplary ratings, who could blame the State for deeming the experiment a failure.  While HB5 was not perfect, the state did it did open the door for some local control over accountability, but we failed as a profession to truly take advantage of it. And again, I feel guilty about that.

I am ready to call the next piece a missed opportunity as well, although the jury may still be out.  In 2015, House Bill 1842 introduced Districts of Innovation (DOI) as a concept that would allow school districts the opportunity to create their own plans to free themselves from Texas Education Agency mandates. It was praised as a way to honor schools eager to transform with new and innovative ideas, however something just doesn't translate.  You can ask for anything you want but you can't get out of the accountability system. Basically, the state challenged you to find a better way to do "old school".  Here is a link to TEA's information on DOI:

TEA: Districts of Innovation

Why, in my opinion, is the jury still out?  We could start with the fact that the top 4 exemptions asked for as part of DOI are as follows:
  1. School Start Date (I get it. If you start earlier you can finish the first semester before Christmas and start the summer earlier.  All for it)
  2. Teacher Certifications (Again, in some cases, especially in CTE fields where industry experience may be paramount, a person without a teacher certification may be the best person to teach the course. But are we ready as a profession to ask permission not to be certified?)
  3. Class Size (Currently K-4 grades are capped at 22, but I guess the innovative idea is to make the classes bigger?  Again, I understand the proposal but let's be careful what we ask for.)
  4. Class Size Part 2 (This one I love.  In the age of transparency, this exemption allows districts to go over the class size cap and not have to tell parents about it?  Seriously.)
I would suggest that three of the four have everything to do with saving a district time and money and nothing to do with innovative teaching and learning. That is not to say that districts haven't tried to be innovative, but the combination of the rules surrounding DOI applications don't truly call for school transformation.  I am guilty on this one too.  Other than changing our calendar, I am still working with others to find innovative ideas that fit our districts needs.  To read more about DOI's implementation:

Texas Classroom Teachers Association - Districts of Innovation: The Reality

Top Twenty Exemptions for Districts of Innovation

So why did I write this tonight, especially at the risk of alienating some of my educator friends? Because I want us to do better and I think we can.  I am tired of waiting for the legislature to send a miracle that will save our public schools.  I am tired of trying to explain/defend an A-F system that really doesn't make sense as a comprehensive tool to measure schools (On a side note, the state delayed A-F for campus ratings.  Two years wasn't long enough to figure it out.).  But I am also tired of feeling guilty that we haven't done enough to show what our schools really can do.  In my district we have developed 12 indicators and rubrics to measure what we think is important (the eight indicators from the original HB5 plus four locally developed academic goals).  They are designed to be difficult to achieve, but more importantly, they were developed by our district stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members) to show what we value in our community.  I choose not to be frustrated anymore about an accountability system that does nothing for us.  Instead I pledge to focus on what is important to our schools and the community we serve and I commit to sharing the results that matter most.  Schools deserve it.

To see our Community Based Accountability rubrics:

NISD CBAS

#guiltfreeeducator

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What my kids have learned from going to an “F” school!

3rd grade Biography Day
Tonight, just for fun, I asked my youngest daughter (4th grade) if she had to give her school a grade what would she give it.   “An A+!” she said enthusiastically!!  When I asked her why, she said, “The teachers are awesome and we get to do lots of cool stuff!”  Then I told her some people think her school is an F!  “Those people are dumb. Have they even been there?” she replied.  Unfortunately, the answer is probably not.

Several years ago, my kids switched schools away from a wonderful campus and began a new experience in a much different, yet equally wonderful school environment.  We had moved and I wanted them in the same school district in which I worked.  At the time my oldest daughter was in third grade and my son was in first.  Now, I will admit, they were coming to a school that was quite different than the one they left.  For one thing, over half the students at their new school were what our state labels “economically disadvantaged”.  This was a new experience because my kids had been quite sheltered and quite frankly, never been around kids that didn’t have just about everything they wanted.  I will never forget my son coming home the first week and telling us about his new friend.  “He doesn’t speak English, but he is really good at math and building stuff” he excitedly told us. 
Making Friends from Around the World
I remember telling him to learn all the Spanish you can from him because one day you may need it.  My son is in middle school this year, and more often than not when I ask him who he sat with at lunch, that same first grade friend is one of the kids he mentions. 

PTA District Reflections - Literature
The truth is, I couldn’t have asked for a better school experience for my kids despite the fact that my 6th and 8th graders go to a middle school that got a “D” on the just released “rough draft” accountability ratings from the state and my 4th grade daughter’s school got an “F” in one of the categories.  They have had some of the best teachers I have seen anywhere, and I should know, I have spent the last 22 years of my life in schools of all shapes and sizes.  They have been challenged and they have grown and learned more than I could ever imagine.  

It is hard for me to believe that those with very limited knowledge of schools could have the audacity to create a system that they can’t even explain and give grades without providing promised support. If a teacher did that to his/her class we would consider it poor instruction at best and gross negligence at worst.  If you think I am being overly dramatic, you didn’t spend the last two days like I did talking to principals and educators and trying to explain that places they put their heart and souls into were deemed not good enough.

Bell Helicopter Competition
7th Grade District Tennis Tournament
Enough politics.  My real point in writing is that I am thankful for some of the things my kids have learned in these so-called failing schools.  Our District and schools strive to provide a dynamic learning experience and that is exactly what they have done.  My kids learned to dance.  Yep.  No one in my family can dance a lick, but when your friends are part of the after school dance club that is so popular that they have one for every grade, you sign up and show your stuff!  They learned to read and
Texas ASCD STEM showcase


debate.   Have you ever seen a “Battle of the Books” competition? It is intense.  You have to read and work as a team to determine your answers as you
Representing Texas vs. the World!
compete against other teams. They have been in plays.  They have built robots. They have learned to solve a Rubik’s cube. Learned to play chess. My daughter was a magician in a talent show. My son and his friends traveled to a global problem solving completion for Destination Imagination. My oldest was part of a team that placed second in a STEM competition at Bell Helicopter and she writes her own blog. They have collected things for Angel Tree gifts and later realized it was for friends at their school. They have been so lucky to have the care and guidance of so many wonderful educators. This is not a bragging list about my kids, it is meant to point out that NONE of the things above (and countless others) would they have ever experienced without their schools.  What they have learned in school I couldn’t have taught them. 


Next year my oldest will start high school and all three of my kids will be at schools that received a “D” or worse from the state.  I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Why I Write....National Writing Day

Eight years ago the National Council of Teachers of English  (NCTE) began the National Day on Writing in an effort to promote one of the most critical components of literacy....and one that seems to be an increasing struggle in our schools.  The hashtag #WhyIWrite is being used today all across America to share the importance of writing so I thought I would play along. Here is the link: 


The truth is, I love to write.  I don't claim to be good at it, but I like the challenge of it and I like the feeling of looking at a finished product.  There is something that is satisfying in that...a conversation gets lost to memory, but the written word remains.  I write for three primary reasons:  Professional, Personal Communication, and Reflections.

Professionally, my days are spent with countless emails.  Some are informal answers to questions or requests, but others, depending on the audience take on a more formal approach. In addition to the email barrage,  I write a weekly blog/memo to my department and try to make it both informative with a touch of encouragement.  Other professional writing I do as part of my job include writing memorandums, school regulations, presentations for the public, etc.  The style of writing varies and it always satisfying to complete a written project.

Personal Communication takes on all sorts of formats as well.  Sometimes it is an email or through social media, but more importantly, I like to write hand written notes.  I don't do it as much as I should, so here is a written goal to try and improve it.  Recently, I was at my grandmother's and she gave me a shoebox full of cards and pictures that I had made for her over the years.  It was special.  She actually had every thank you note I had written for Christmas or Birthdays or other occasions, as well as letters and notes through the years.  I had no idea they meant so much to her!  In my own garage, I have several boxes of letters from former students or summer camps kids I have taught over the years, as well as a box of letters from my Dad. They all mean the world to me.  Handwritten, personal connections are not as common as they use to be, but they are no less significant.  

Reflections:  For much of my adult life I have kept a reflective journal.  It goes in spurts, sometimes I write on a regular basis for awhile and sometimes it sits idle.  It is generally a mixture of ideas, thoughts, and questions.  Some of them are personal and some are professional, but I have found that taking the time to do this helps me put things in perspective.  

So that is my answer to the "Why I Write" question.  I hope our students find reasons to write and that our teachers encourage them to do so. Our kids should be using both electronic and handwritten forms of writing.  Journals, blogs, research papers, personal narratives, etc. are all types of writing that our kids should experience regularly. Communication in the written form is truly an essential piece to literacy and overall  personal success!  It is truly an example of AUTHENTIC LEARNING.