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.


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Why Destination Imagination is a lot like Mardi Gras.!!..You Had To Be There

Trading Pins from around the world is a big deal!

I am headed home from five days at the Global Finals for Destination Imagination and I have to say that although I have been in education for over twenty years now, I have never seen anything quite like it.  In fact, until last year I didn’t even know this world existed.  The best comparison I have for Globals is Mardi Gras in New Orleans….not for the debauchery, but because when you tell stories about what happened, you will inevitably get two types of reactions:  If someone has been there, they understand; if they haven’t, don’t bother trying to explain it because they won’t believe you anyway.  We saw costumes that would rival anything you might see at Mardi Gras, but one of the big differences is they were made by hand from kids all over the world. 
Some of the NISD students at the "Duct Tape" Ball
This guy could fit in at Mardi Gras


When I started this blog a couple of years ago, I entitled it “Exploring Authentic Learning” because I believe that our students need as many avenues as possible to get hands-on, real-world learning experiences as they go through school.  As educators, we have to be intentional about planning for these types of activities to happen and I believe in NISD, we do about as well as anyone, in finding ways for kids to express and share all sorts of talents. In fact, while our group was gone, approximately 1,000 students shared and displayed their work at our District’s annual “Night of No Limits”. Where else do you see that many K-12 students come together on one night to celebrate their learning?
As we make the trek home today, I can’t help but reflect on what our team experienced this week. And when I say team, there are twenty-three of us in a caravan (the team, parents, and siblings) driving from Knoxville, Tennessee to our home in Newark, Texas.  We are all exhausted, maybe a little grumpy, but also feeling very fortunate to have been supported by so many friends and family through prayers, thoughts, and finances. 
William and some friends from China
The father in me is very proud of my son and his team, but the professional educator in me cannot help but see the endless possibilities a program such as this can provide for students around the world.  As I mentioned, I didn’t really know much about Destination Imagination two years ago.  For me, it was like countless other programs (and there are many other good ones out there), but that all changed because of one teacher and one parent.  Two years ago at my kids’ elementary school, we had a teacher new to the campus that really pushed to try and get the DI program going.
Hanging out with friends!

She made calls and sent letters to try and get a few parents interested.  She held a parent meeting that was sparsley attended, but she did what so many of educators talk about doing, she connected with one parent and convinced him that it would be a great opportunity for our students.  We talk a lot in schools about how we need our parents to volunteer and help, but often they do not know how, or, gasp, they are not really as welcomed or encouraged as we would like to believe we make them.  One teacher didn’t give up and for that, I am grateful.  (On a side note, many of the schools in our District have been competing for years and I have had other teachers approach me in my role about expanding the program. NISD sent over 100 teams to the Regional competition this year…duly noted).
Tidwell Middle School 

So our little team started last year with one dad meeting weekly with the kids in his garage (almost a prerequisite for sponsoring DI).  They built and rebuilt props, wrote a script to solve what DI calls a “Technical Challenge”, designed costumes and by the Spring they were ready to compete for the first time in the local competition.  Much to our delight, they placed high enough to qualify for the State competition!  This was exciting!  You could tell they had caught the fever and in an age when we struggle to get kids excited about school, competing in problem solving and being successful is a great way to get them to stretch their minds.  At the State competition we learned a lot last year.  We learned that working together and collaboration are essential to success, but the exciting part is they walked away determined to do better next time!



Stepping away from the parent part for a moment, and going back to my role as an educator, what happened next really excites me.  At our school we went from one team, to three.  Okay, maybe that is meager progress, but rather than 6 kids experiencing the process, we are up to 18 (including my daughters third grade team)!!  Who knows what next year will bring, but I am an advocate for more kids and parents getting involved.  Our own team stayed together.  Two members “graduated” to middle school, and were replaced, but we also added two more coaches.  One of the parents scheduled permitted her to eat lunch with the kids once a week and work on “instant challenges”. Again, parents working with students and the school to help provide dynamic learning experience!  In fact, my middle school daughter now competes on a team in which the mom coaches SEVEN teams!!! You might say we are hooked.


Recently, in a meeting with principals from our District, I asked them to think about how their campus plans for ALL students to share, reflect, and publish their work.  This is very important to authentic learning.  We should feel morally obligated to provide cultures in our buildings where students have real-world experiences.  If we do not, how can we say we are preparing them for their future?  Don’t “allow” it to happen, encourage and foster a setting in the classroom and the campus where it “has” to happen.


This week was a wonderful experience for my son and his team.  One that they will never forget.  They reached their goal of qualifying for Globals and they now have that fever again to come back and compete against the best in the world.  However, competing was just one fraction of the learning experience.  Our kids worked to fundraise, they learned to write letters to both request and thank people and businesses for funds, they even spoke at a Board of Directors meeting to receive a grant to support their trip.  All of these life skills and experiences forced them to do things they would not have learned any other way.  While at the competition, I watch in amazement as they interacted, bartered, and traded with kids from all over the world.  Who knows, someday, one of them may end up negotiating with China over something much more important than a decorated pin.

Lakeview Elementary

Medlin Middle School

Tidwell Middle School- Instant Challenge Champions


As I mentioned, in NISD, we put an emphasis on authentic learning.  Our Academies at the high school level provide all sorts of real-world experiences.  Many of our schools have joined the “makers space” movement to foster student creativity, and our teachers continue to develop problem-based learning lessons for students.  Our students build their own e-portfolios and some even tell stories of using them to get jobs! My challenge for NISD teachers and administrators, and really educators everywhere, is what can we do to ensure that ALL of our students experience learning like the four teams from NISD that competed at Globals this year? Or the STEM kids from NHS that built rockets and competed with schools around the state? Or the robotics club at Clara Love Elementary that qualified and competed at the state level.  Truly, the list of opportunities and successes in NISD is endless, but let’s not be satisfied until ALL students are Ready for College, Ready for the Global Workplace, and Ready for Personal Success.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Shadow a Student Challenge!!

Since I graduated from Lewis-Palmer High School, Monument, CO in 1989, my visits to high school have tended to be limited to brief classroom visits, an occasional walk through the halls, or an athletic or fine art event.  I remember really liking high school…especially the social part.  I don’t really remember too much about most of my classes but I remember my friends and many of my teachers.  Today I decided to take the “Shadow a Student” challenge and spent the day attending classes at Northwest High School in my District. I can tell you I learned a lot and walk away with more questions than answers.
"The Meeting"
I had asked Principal Jason Childress to find me a student and he paired me with Josh.  Josh is a sophomore football player and within the first few minutes, I knew I would like him.  Everybody likes “Big Josh”.  He was a great tour guide today and didn’t seem to mind too much having me tag along with him all day.  I will keep some of our conversations private, but I do believe he gave me an honest and authentic look into the life of one of our student athletes.
Seriously??
Our day started with 1st period athletics.  We dressed out and offseason football workouts and I was amazed with how organized and efficient the workouts and drills were.  There was very little “direct” teach, but the coaches encouraged and motivated the team as the students worked with each other through drills they had obviously practiced before.  Josh was one of the vocal leaders and even tried to get me on the bench press.  I resisted, but did participate in some of the workout.  Best of all, I got a NHS football t-shirt to wear the rest of the day.
Tapping Out!
The juniors were taking the SAT test today and many of the teachers were being used to help with coverage.  Because Josh took Spanish I is an 8th grader, he is already in Spanish 3 (typically a junior level course) his teacher was helping with the SAT.  Therefore our 2nd period was more of a study hall.  I was a little relieved I didn’t have to practice my Spanish, plus it gave me a chance to talk to Josh about his typical day.  He shared that after school he will workout (again) and generally doesn’t get home until about 6:30-7:00 on most days. He also has a part-time landscaping job, likes old cars, and does a little homework.  I must admit we discussed making a Sonic run during second period, but thought better of it.

World Geography
Third period found us in World Geography.  Students grappled with the work of Ghandi and what social injustices are still present today.  The variety of thought in the room was substantial. Because of the room arrangement, I didn’t get to sit by my new friend Josh.  The group I was with struggled a bit making connections, but we worked through it.  It was also an Advisory period day so we stayed in 3rd period a little longer and had a lesson on cyber safety and got to watch announcements created by the AMAT academy.  It was all very good information and seems like a great way to get the message to all the student.

Back when I was in high school, my favorite period of the day was lunch!  We use to drive to Dairy Queen or one of the other fast food restaurants and hope we go back to school in time.  Nowadays, the students don’t get to leave, but the food court in the cafeteria rivals any medium sized mall.  Josh and I had Pizza Hut and nachos. The students were able to socialize and I even asked Josh if there were teachers on duty because it just seemed like everything was running smoothly on its own.  We sat at a table by ourselves as I tried to convince Josh that Texas Tech would be a great place to aspire to play football.  He was polite, but I could tell he has his sights set on Oklahoma State.  He mentioned that he needed to focus more in the classroom so that his grades are not an issue, but I was so impressed with his focus and his perspective of his future.

English II
In the afternoon, the academics got a lot tougher.  We went from English II, to Chemistry, and then Geometry.  One thing I recognized in all the classes is that you better keep up.  They move fast and expect students to have their work and be ready to go.  There was support, both in class, and with tutorials but I sure wouldn’t call it hand holding.  In English we practice some revising and editing which I could do fairly well despite my tendency to misspell words and generally butcher many grammatical rules.  Chemistry might as well have been a forgien language.  I vaguely remembered some of the concepts from high school, but I was basically lost.  Josh left with homework…I was just glad I didn’t have to turn my work in tomorrow.  The Geometry class was a review for a test tomorrow.  The students all seem to grasp the concepts and were ready to go. As the teacher reviewed with the student, I heard what was my favorite quote of the day, “This class is designed for YOUR success, not mine.” He was trying to have the students reflect on what they needed help with and address their needs.  We ended our day in Josh’s Principles of Agriculture class.  I was disappointed when we went to a classroom instead of a barn, but I did learn a lot of vocabulary around dairy science that I did not know.

End of the Day
After that, my day was over, but not for Josh.  He headed back to athletics for after school workouts.  Based on what I saw in Chemistry, he will get home tonight sometime around 7:00 and have an hour or so of homework before returning for football practice tomorrow morning to do it all over again.
So what did I learn today?
·        I learned that high school hasn’t gotten any easier in the last 25 years. 
·        I learned that teachers and students work very hard (actually, I knew that, but I saw it in action).I learned that classes and lunch are quieter than they use to be…a lot of kids on phones and with headphones. 
·        I learned that almost all of the students are very agreeable and follow the rules.
·        I saw very few “excited” about what they were learning and that most adults (including myself) sound foolish when we attempt to determine what is relevant for all students.
·        The “average” high school student is a myth.  There is no such thing…they are all unique.
Someone asked me as I left if it was worth it.  Absolutely.  It was the best day I have spent at work in a long, long time and probably the best professional development I could have experienced. Students will help us transform our schools if we let them.  We just need to look and listen!

A special thank you to Josh, Principal Jason Childress, and the entire Northwest High School staff for letting me invade your space today.  It was a pleasure!
#shadowastudent
@NHSTexans







Sunday, January 31, 2016

Don't let your leadership cause a Head-On collision!

Every September in Sweden, the citizens remember H-Day, probably some more fondly than others.  "Högertrafikomläggningen" ("The right-hand traffic diversion") was the day in 1967 in which Sweden switched from driving on the left-side of the road to the right side. While it may seem a bit comical now, it was serious business at the time, if you stop and reflect on the amount of planning that would go into such a switch, it is easy to question why even bother.  The background of the decision included over 40 years of debate in the country and once the decision was made by the government in 1963, it took four years of planning despite an overwhelming opposition from the public.  In fact, over 80% of the Swedish population opposed the switch but the leaders pressed on. Why? To begin with, most of Europe drove on the right side, including Norway and Finland (Sweden’s immediate neighbors) and more and more vehicles were being made to drive on the right side of the road.  Also, numerous studies had sited safety concerns for left-sided driving.  There were many more head-on collisions in Sweden per capita that other countries. And so the leaders pressed on despite opposition they believed they were making a change that would ultimately be good for the country. 
How does this compare to our leadership in education?  What sacred cows do we hold on to because it is the way we have always done it? Do we resist change because it might be an inconvenience and does not seem worth the effort?   In Sweden, they basically shut down the roads for a day, had lights, traffic signs and paint ready to go for an immediate switch.  They even bought over 8,000 buses with doors on the correct side nationwide to accommodate the change. They spent several years training drivers and preparing them for the change so that when it happened, it was actually one of the safest Mondays on record in terms of accidents. People were focused on their driving, had been prepared, and implemented the plan almost flawlessly. 

What if Sweden had never had an “H-Day”?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything would have gone on just as it was and people would have been content. However, maybe things are safer now….maybe driving between countries is easier and more likely.  My point in telling the story is not about the driving.  It is more about the vision, the planning, and the courage it took to make such a switch.  One that literally effected everyone in the country.  It took communication, courage, money, and time.  A lesson we would all be well served to remember when we are leading/seeking change in our schools and our system.  Not everyone is going to like it, but if we have a good reason, stick to the plan, and communicate/prepare everyone well, the change is much more likely to be successful and not a head-on collision.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Make 2016 About "Goal Accomplishment"

The turning of the calendar to a new year always brings a renewed interest in self-improvement.  It may be to eat healthy, exercise, learn something new, be a better person, or just finish a book, but many people set goals and/or resolutions every January.  The vast majority of them will never keep them.  It happens every year. 
If you are reading this, more than likely you work in education and January is the perfect time for goal setting and mid-year adjustments.  I thought I had a unique idea about some ways to start the new year, but it turns out my Twitter and Facebook feeds are both full of people sharing ideas about education resolutions…most far better than mine, but I decided to press on nonetheless.
Just like the age-old exercise resolutions, well intended aspirations often don’t last long. Here are three activities that have I have found greatly increase the likelihood of “goal accomplishment”:

1.        Write them down:  Sounds simple enough, but many people will tell you the exercise of writing down a stated goal leads to the likelihood it will be accomplished.  Why?  Who knows? My guess is that the very elementary task of taking the time to put enough thought into it to put them in writing give you that extra little bit of commitment.  It is sort of like a “To-Do” list, but if you subscribe to a growth mindset, it is more than a compliance to-do list, it becomes something to strive for that makes you and your students better.

2.       Celebrate Small Wins: As the old saying goes, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.  Long term goals are great (and necessary to accomplish a vision), but small wins can serve as both a formative check point and as positive motivation. By the end of the month, you should know if you are making progress towards your goal. If your goal is to lose 10 lbs. it is easy to jump on a scale and determine if you have accomplished your goal or how much you still have to go, but if you are working on a specific skill or teaching strategy it may be more difficult to assess how you are doing.  Take time to know if you are improving….either with student results or your own practices. 

3.       Have a clear success criteria:  One of the biggest reasons goals are not accomplished it because we fail to articulate clearly what we are trying to accomplish, how we are going to do it, and how we will know we have accomplished it. Often we have goals like “I’m going to get better at giving feedback.”  What does that even mean? The frequency? The quality? And isn’t the purpose of giving feedback so that students will improve?  If so, might that truly be the success criteria for effective feedback.  There are countless other examples of broadly based, well-intended goals without a clear cycle of assessing for success.

One of my favorite TED talks of all time is a simple, lighthearted look at 30-Day Challenges by Matt Cutts.  He touches on many of the principles above, but does so with a common sense approach to goal accomplishment. Here is the link:



Whatever you are trying to improve in 2016, I wish you the best of luck….I hope you know by the end of January if you are making progress.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

How do you bake a cake?



Recently, I was chatting with someone I consider a true expert in our field.  We were talking about what seems to be missing in today’s classrooms.  Don’t get me wrong, it was not a cri

tical conversation about today’s classrooms.  In fact, it was an acknowledgement that teaching today is harder than it has ever been….students are more diverse, parents more difficult, the content has increased as have the expectations.  Another variable that has greatly increased for teacher is the access and availability of resources. There are so many “researched based” ideas out there that a quick search of the internet or even the classroom bookshelf gives a teacher an abundance of great lesson ideas or quick fix strategies.  Here is where my wise friend struck me with an interesting observation.  She asked how many teachers know how to cook from scratch? And how many bake cakes from a box?
The premise was simple.  I have had some excellent cakes made from a box (even made a few myself).  I dump the contents in, add an egg or two, a little milk and PRESTO!  I have a cake….actually, I have a pretty good cake.  One that I would even serve guests and be proud.  The problem is, I have no idea how to bake nor the first thing about what goes into making a homemade cake.  There is also no way I could teach someone else how to bake because I don’t understand the process, I just follow the recipe.  When an expert baker begins a cake, they know what ingredients to add, they put a little extra here and a little less there based on personal taste.  Because of their experience and their knowledge, they know how to make the cake a little lighter or sweeter or whatever they want.  They are designing it as they go and if you stopped them to ask, they could explain the why behind each ingredient and the order in which they should be added. 
Teaching is no difference.  The true experts (the bakers) can design a perfect lesson because they understand the content and their students (what flavors do they like?).  They know what order to present the information. They know when to add something extra and when to leave out something out that is not needed.  They know what is important.  

Box cakes lessons and resources are very necessary and can be very good.  They help us be more efficient and feed our students.  In a day and age when everything is so busy, it is important to have tools that save us time and energy.  It is equally important to have someone that knows the ingredients (the process) and can make adjustments as needed. We need teachers that are bakers!!!