Saturday, November 16, 2013

Chicken or the Egg translated to education Practice or Belief?

In an administrative meeting, after a session of instructional rounds, we began a discussion about why we see pockets of excellence in a building or even promising practices in one subject area not present in another when looking at the same teacher. The group did come to some consensus that all teachers want to do their best and want to be using the best practices for their students. (If there are teachers out there that do not want those things, then we have a much different problem.)  That led to the discussion about beliefs, philosophy and practices. I honestly feel that we have many teachers who are using less than effective strategies and doing things that have a negative impact on their students because they truly believe that those things are what are best for students. I will just throw out one of my own personal crusades, how to handle late work. Giving students no credit for late work is touted by some teaches as preparing the student for the "real world" or teaching them responsibility. I would argue that this practice does neither. In the "real world", deadlines are missed regularly.  Manytimes they are missed due to timelines being too ambitious, overloaded individuals or departments and even simply because people just weren't able to do the work without further training. An example: I hand out things to teachers asking that they be returned by a specific date and have normally have far less than 100% meeting my deadline or even in completing the task. I have posted deadlines for grades to be due and in eleven years as a principal, have yet to have them all in by the deadline. Some of these instances result in disciplinary action but most end with my assisting the teacher in accomplishing the task. None of the staff, even those disciplined, have compensation withheld due to not meeting timelines and none are allowed to just not complete their grading. I would also argue that when individuals, miss deadlines, they learn nothing if I let them off the hook and either finish the task myself or assign it to another. I am sure that people can argue the opposite side of this issue with their own examples of cases where when deadlines were not met, the employee lost their job.  I doubt these are as common as we try to get students to believe, however.
Back to the real purpose of this post which is the analysis of whether, changing a teachers beliefs or practices needs to come first in a reform effort. I argue that changing beliefs is much more difficult than changing practice. Teachers want to believe that what they are doing is best for kids because we take what we do very personally. Often to the extent that we identify ourselves by our job.So if what we are doing is not best for kids, then we ourselves somehow lack worth. This has a tremendous impact on our willingness to take risks. We get comfortable and convince ourselves that the way we were taught and learned are the most effective ways of teaching and learning. It scares us that the way we have been teaching all these years could possibly be less than perfect. Afterall, we can all point to students who have excelled once they left our classrooms as evidence of our effectiveness. To convince a teacher that they need to change a practice that has become a cornerstone of their teaching and which they have defended over the years is nearly impossible. It often requires that they see evidence that the proposed change will have a greater impact than the current practice. If the evidence presented  is generated in anther school, there will immediately be defensive reaction generally citing the difference in demographics between the two schools or a declaration that there must be an  inequity in the resources afforded the teacher in the other school. The preverbial, "Ya But" of somekind generally surfaces. If, however, they are forced to make a change in their own practice and can experience first hand the positive impact it makes, they will become an immedaite convert.
So, knowing that there is generally an implementation dip with the introduction of any new skill, how do we insure that a teacher sticks with it long enough to see positive results?  Quality  professional development prior to implementation and adequate support during, which includes positive reinforcement from the administrator. Praise for effort is a tremendous motivator for educators, We generally have an open Mindset and truly believe that we can get better at things with practice. However, we can also be quickly discouraged when a tremendous amount of effort does not yeild immediate results. This is where the encouragement from an administrator is essential. They need explicit affirmation that what they are doing is "good" and they are an "awesome educator" for making this change. They need to hear that the administrator knew the change would not yeild immediate gains and reassurance that their efforts will lead to not only great improvements in their own classroom but later in their leading other staff members through the sharing of their experience, the whole school as well.
The other administrators laughed at me when my response to how do we get teachers to leave their current practices for those which research suggests are more effective.  My answer was, "We make them!" . However, I sincerely believe that with the exception of a few leaders and early adopters, teachers will not abandon practices they have grown to be comfortable with unless they are forced to do so. When I say "make them", I really mean having some frank discussions with the individual or group, building up their confidence by sharing your confidence in them as a leader, providing opportunities for new learning, setting a timeline for implementation, adequate support while implementing the new practice and finallly, recognition of their success in front of their peers.
I am a big fan of Leading Change by Kotter and understand the importance of creating a sense of urgency, but to be honest with you,  if teachers don't have this by now after all of the negative light that has been shed on our schools over the past twenty years, then they never will. Creating a sense of urgency is not where we need to spend a great deal of time with our teachers. Even those who aggressively defend their schools and individual practices deep down know that we need to do better.  Teachers and administrators love to plan and plan and plan so at some point, the administrator must set a deadline and force someone to try something new. This is what I feel he is citing as the creation of a guiding coalition. Build capacity with a few so that they can later lead the many.
As I stated in the beginning of this post, I believe that you must change practice prior to belief in almost all cases. You can monitor practice far more effectively than you can beliefs and what gets monitored is what gets done. You can "force" people to do things, you can't "force" them to believe.

Is Organization Really the Key to Success?

Although I have often heard the phrase, “Organization is the key to success”; I would argue that communication (including within my definition are empathy and an ability to manage relationships) plays a much bigger role in reaching success. Communication is a very complicated thing in that it requires effort from both the sender and the receiver.  To compound the problem, a number of factors impact the mere words we utter. Our tone and our level both impact someone’s perception of what they are hearing. Body language also plays a very big role in communicating with others. You would think that written words, carefully selected, may be a better way to communicate, but even those absent level, tone, and body language can easily be misinterpreted.  How many times have you read an email and felt the other individual was implying something other than what was being stated clearly?
Although communication can happen in a variety of ways, my personal preference is a face to face conversation with an individual or small group.  I can judge misinterpretations through the body language of those I am communicating with and make clarifications prior to further confusing what I am trying to communicate.  A phone call would be my second choice as it still lets one hear the emotion in the other’s voice. Email and text have become very popular forms of communication due to the fact that they are asynchronous meaning the sender and the receiver do not have to exchange information in a volley but rather leave long periods of “silence” between exchanges. I use email a great deal in my job and have found that it is an efficient and effective way to convey just pure information to an individual or group. I have also found that it is a terrible way to communicate with someone concerning a problem. Texting has also become very popular, particularly with teens.  It provides them an opportunity to communicate things silently and thus have a second conversation going on with someone not in the immediate vicinity. Personally, I do not like text but there are those who will send text rather than answer the phone when they receive a call. It provides teens an opportunity to communicate things they may not have the courage to say.  That can be a positive or negative as in “I love you” or “Why don’t you jump off of a bridge?”  Both of these statements come from strong emotions and definitely illicit strong emotions from the receiver. Texting, Facebook, Twitter etc… can be wonderful ways of keeping in contact with friends and family, but they can also be used to hurt others as well.

This year we have made it our goal at the high school to improve our communication with the parents of our students. We have been increasing the number of phone calls we make each week and making not only calls sharing concerns, but those praising accomplishments as well.  Parent teacher conferences have provided our parents an opportunity to meet with their child’s parents, but with only occurring once during the middle of the semester were not as effective as we would like them to have been. Our attendance was scarce, having only about 20-25% of our students’ parents attending. The conversations were shallow, generally falling into one of two categories: grades or behavior.  The grade conversations were generally around how the student could get a better grade and little of any discussion about how well or what the student was learning. If the student had an A, teachers praised the parent and if the student had a poor grade, the discussion was on what they could redo to bring the grade up. Some of these grade discussions even became adversarial between the teacher and the parent both wanting the other to do some things differently to improve the students’ grades. The behavior conversations went along the same path; praise for the parent whose child was compliant and worked hard, and concerns for those who were not. We had long lines so the majority of a parent’s time was spent waiting to talk to a teacher not in the conversations themselves. With our goal to improve communication and relationships with parents we have modified the format of conferences. We hope for the focus to be on the whole child and their learning and away from merely grades earned or behavior problems in individual classes. Students and their parents have been contacted and 10 minute conferences scheduled with the student's Dodger Time Advisor. The conferences are being held at the end of the term witth hopes of reflecting upon learning and establishing goals for the next term. The student’s advisor will be providing each parent a list of e-mail and phone extensions for every staff member in the building. We also hope that in this meeting the advisor will establish a relationship with the parent and become a contact they have in the building who sees their child every day, all year long. The ultimate goal is to establish an environment in which parents and teachers feel comfortable making contact with each other anytime throughout the year and not just at a conference held at midterm.  As organized as the student, parent or teacher may be, without effective communication, the student’s level of success will never reach full potential without effective communication between these three factions. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Job imbedded professional development

When I arrived in Fort Dodge I was directed by the board to take a look at the schedule and improve the climate at the high school.  Our curriculum coordinator and one of the assistant principals, Ben Johnson, had pursued the AIW initiative which was a new thing to the state of Iowa. I placed Ben in charge and asked him to select an initial group of teachers to participate. That initial group did an outstanding job of really engaging in the process and promoting it to the rest of the staff. Over the past four years we have gradually added groups until this year when we now have asked all staff to participate. We started this process with the understanding that if it is important work then we as administrators should be providing our staff time to do it. We looked at how staff time was currently being used and then eliminated supervision duties that existed in their 90 minute duty/prep time.  We asked all staff to use the time we freed them from duties to engage in either AIW or another PLC focus which aligned with the building goals. By placing this in their existing schedule, during the day and in place of less than professional responsibilities allow us to respond to the typical "I dont' have time" arguement.  An AIW leadership team was established which really began to direct this initiative.
With the success we had with this implementation process, we included collaboration time as one of the requirements for a new schedule. This year we are on a six period day in which instructional responsibilities are assigned five of the six periods with one period being reserved for preparation time. However, the building leadership team decided that on Wednesdays, collaboration would take place during that preparation period and the AIW process will become how we do business rather than something we do. Peer critique is now part of our teaching process.  Within the new schedule we have three semesters each 60 days in length. During one of those semesters, teachers are only asked to have 4 traditional instructional periods with the an additional period spent on preparation and the last period spent in a PLC. The topic was RTI and the process went like this... First the teachers read some lliteratuire on the use of data.  It quickly became clear to all that data does not instantly give us answers, but rather frames better questions and points to what information it is important to keep, what we have and what we need to go get. This also led staff to the idea that we need to look at establishing common assessments which are geared towards what specifically we want students to know and be able to do. We also quickly recognized that not only do we need to create higher quality assessments, but an assessment structure/plan to ensure measurements are taken routinely and strategically. The next readings were around screening and diagnostic tools including their use to identify struggling students and specifically what problems they are facing.
Once we practiced using some diagnostic assessments on just a few students and then reflecting upon that experience with our peers, we looked for specific strategies that would address the needs. Fortunately, we had built a strategy toolbox the previous year in anticipation of this professional learning.. The strategies were again practiced with studensts in a small group situation. We purposefully put teachers into situations where they could develop and sharpen skills in a safe learning environment.It proved to be very successful.
A facilitator/coordinator was placed in charge of the whole process and she created a Google Doc to allow teachers to reflect asynchronously.  This enhanced the reflection even more due to more input.
It has been a great move for our school and for our distruct. We are exciteded to continue this practice next year as well moving the focus from our own learning to providing students the support they need to be successful in the regular classroo setting.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Creating Innovators Discussion Chapter 1

You have probably already guessed that this is one of my favorite books knocking off my long time favorites The Fifth Discipline and Schools that Learn both by Peter Senge.
I love the quote form the director of Pella. (Indeed, for Rick Hassman, director or corporate applications at Pella, continuous improvemnt is a passion. "Where innovation comes in...is figuring out the right problem to be solved, the right question to ask, and then figuring out a better way to solve the problem. You can't just come up with a solution for today's problem. Nothing stays the same.")
I think this not only applies to how we should approach our charge as educators, but also indicates what we should be emphasizing with our students. We have to figure out the right problem to be solved. This was discussed with those teachers involved in the RTI work with Lynnae.  The questions have to are the kids performing, if not why, is it what we are asking them to do, their lack of essential skills to do it, or the (HOW) way in which we are asking them to do it? We know certain things about the students we are attempting to work with and thus can use that knowledge to tailor our attempts to engage them. They are social learners learning best through interaction with each other. Their worlds truly revolve around them. They post or tweet their every move on social media cites like their actions are of great interest to millions of people. As we discussed the Thursday or Friday we met together, these attributes can be exploited.  Most of them are not lazy, they just don't have a real interest in what we have to say. They are, however, willing to seek out answers to questions they develop or we give them. They will spend time exploring a concept, discussing a topic, and create a defense their position. However, they want to spend that time using their tools and in their digital world not the paper, pencil and PowerPoint world we are comfortable in. They have fundamental skills with technology and would much rather do things on the computer than with paper and pencil like I still use. Exploit these characteristic we know to be consistent among most of our students.
We have a number of our staff,l you all being the majority of that group, who are becoming more and more innovative and more and more comfortable working in the "digital world" they live in.
The co-teaching I have pushed for is an example of that innovative spirit. You are doing some awesome things and moving in what is being painted as the right direction. However, with any innovation, there has to be constant reflection and willingness not only do some different things but the even harder job of stop doing some of the things we are currently doing. I built and entire pole barn which I then had to take down and begin to rebuild because I made a couple of mistakes. There was a story which by the way ended up on the front page of the Freeman Journal.  If I had stopped then, we would not have gone on to build a large number of houses, two of which were over 5000 sq ft and consisting of materials amounting to over $300,000 each. That was fourteen years ago. We, Dick Kennedy and I, did this with students.  Neither of us had built a house before or even been in charge of a large edition. We took a huge risk and things did not always go well. The students in the program were not the A students attending school at that time but rather a group of young men and a couple of young ladies that most teachers thought were lazy and lacking of intelligence.
You all recognize that we can not teach the way we were taught nor focus on  preparing students for the standardized  assessments we think we are judged by. You might have noticed, they don't care about those assessments and those assessments really don't end up being a real indicator of eventual success.
Wagner outlines the seven survival skills which are actually introduced in an earlier book you are free to borrow. He then goes on to list a multitude of other skills or qualities that he argues can be taught, nurtured and mentored. How many of the qualities or skills he mentioned do we currently see in ourselves and how many are we developing in our students?  We can not take credit for what staff or students came to us with or currently have but rather seek ways to expand or increase these skills/qualities in ourselves, the rest of teh staff and our students. We all have to assume the role of learner and strive to attain the qualities of the innovator.
I particularly like the paragraph about how elementary students come in with enthusiasm, curiosity and creativity until we "teach" them that the right answer is more important than a thoughtful question or looking at things from multiple viewpoints.
We are not alone in our need for reflection and change, colleges are also now facing the need to change their practices largely due to highly successful college dropouts who went on to develop or work at companies like  Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook etc... as well as companies who would much rather have individuals with practical technical skills and problem solving ability over those who hold a diploma which signifies that they were able to consume and then regurgitate  large amounts of information which can easily be accessed by a middle school student with a smart phone.
I look forward to hearing what you took from the first chapter and any comments you have on what I have posted.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Collaboration becoming the norm at FDSH

At Saturday School this morning I had a number of students there working on a paper for their Humanities class. I had the opportunity to talk to several as well as one of their teachers. When I say one of their teachers I mean one of the two teachers that student has during the same period. That's right two teachers in the same classroom. Big deal you say, co-teaching with a special education teacher is not that uncommon. However, the co-teaching is not between a regular education and special education but rather a social studies teacher and an English teacher. Humanities is not a class in English or Social Studies departments but something else. I know that this is not new either, but the way in which this collaboration is catching on and spreading throughout the building is exciting. We also now have an American Studies course being piloted this year. That classroom also has two teachers in it everyday. How can we afford that?  Well we simply removed a wall and collapsed two classrooms into one. The numbers are somewhat of an issue so we are looking to lower the class size for next year. The initial integrating of subjects was thrust upon some of our teachers, but the rest have requested that we apply this concept to their classes as well. Our vocational staff eat lunch together everyday and with my just planting a little seed, have become collaborative in a number of projects. The art teachers also have their lunch at the same time and now students after seeing these partnerships put in place are taking it upon themselves to integrate subjects on their own. In fact we just had a student who had made a metal sculpture using the art teacher and the welding teacher as guides. She did this as an independent study course spending time in each classroom during that period. One of her peices won an award at the state Skills USA competition this past Friday. One of our Family Consumer Science classes cooperated with an Industrial Technology class to remodel a house one of the local banks had repossessed. Collaboration continues with Habitat for Humanity, the City of Fort Dodge and our school district in the construction of several houses this upcoming year. We have our Business and Marketing Department working with the Art department and our Family Consumer Science department to start a school store for next year. The teachers are being driven by their own personal desire to make a difference and be innovators.

Collaboration and integration of curricular areas is not the only collaboration we have happening in our building. Our staff, 70% of them, are engaged in the Authentic Intellectual Work model of peer review. They get together twice a week using rubrics to score their tasks, assessments, student work and instruction and then engage in conversations critiquing and suggesting improvements for each other. Tony Wagner talks about the problem of isolation in education and particularly in high schools. This professional development model has broken down many of those barriers and allowed us to revolutionize ourselves into a much more collaborative environment. The 30% that are not involved in AIW are working in their own PLC centered around topics they feel will aid them in meeting their goals contained in their Individual Professional Development Plans.  One group is using several books/resources written by Randy Sprick.  Another is looking at some other of Randy Sprick's published resources. Another group is centering their conversations around revolutionizing our Physical Education offerings. They too have sought out partners from our community to assist them in the actual instruction of our students. Our students are benefiting from the expertise of numerous individuals and organizations i.e. the local park and recreation department, our county conservation office, local fitness instructors and members of our local archery club. With the momentum we have right now and the support we have from our community we are providing some outstanding educational opportunities for our students. Our teachers have accepted a role of learning experience facilitators. Now I am not saying that they have all fully embraced this role or even that those experiencing success in this role have abandoned the traditional "Sage on the Stage" role completely. I can tell you that this is becoming more and more prominent in our classrooms and due to this paradigm shift our classrooms have now extended beyond the walls of our school.
I can't tell you how awed I was when I stopped to look and see what was happening in our building and how often it is happening. We have had very poor attendance at our parent teacher conferences and an idea came to me that we need to have students show case and actually explain what great things are happening in our school. I wanted to insure an audience so I also invited all of the service organizations we cooperate with in meeting the needs of our students in for an appreciation dinner at which we could introduce ourselves and outline the services each of their organizations provide. When they arrived, I had them walk through the area the students had set up their "booths". I could not believe how well each of groups that showed up explained  what they have been doing, how it benefits them and how appreciative they are to have these opportunities which they know don't exist at other schools. I didn't give our teachers much notice or we would have had even more students involved in the showcase. It was also amazing to see how collaborative the students have been in their work within their courses.
When I arrived here four years ago I emphasized my belief that learning is a social process and our staff have showed me how right I was in my beliefs. We have come a long way in breaking down the isolationism in our school for teachers and students. I can't wait to see what our school will look like two years from now, which is only half the amount of time it took to get to this point.  AIW, PLCs, cross curricular partnerships and true integration of content areas have all contributed to creating a much more collaborative culture.

























Friday, July 22, 2011

The Power of the Dinner Table

I just had the opportunity to spend the evening with my two daughters, 17 and 15.  While at the dinner table we enjoyed great conversations regarding the books we are each reading, differences between how teachers teach, and the value of homework. While on vacation last week we experienced the same thing. Many times when they visit, yes I'm divorced, we cook together and talk at the dinner table as well. It seems like the moment we leave the table, however, conversation wanes. Texting begins, the T.V. gets turned on or one or more of us get online and focused on something other than each other. I can remember the best conversations I still have with my parents, my wife and even my friends occur around either a meal or possibly a beverage. 
I know that there is a tremendous amount of research that acknowledges just how important a family meal in the evening is, so I am wondering why we as school leaders, don't protect that time for our families. We can often fill  children's days with scheduled activities which prohibit family time at the dinner table. 
Whether it be dance lessons, music lessons, sports team practices, games, concerts or just a plethora of homework I would guess that a dinner together as a family is a rare thing and even if everyone is eating at the same time, it is rarely around the dinner table with no T.V., texting, radios, newspapers etc. 
I also remember doing my homework at the dinner table as that was the only place to really do it in my house when I was young. Mom and Dad were often there as well or made frequent visits to ensure we were not experiencing any difficulties. After we were done with our homework and chores, we were sometimes allowed to watch a T.V. show with them. We had early bedtimes and were encouraged to read in our rooms by frequent visits to the library and the absence of any electronic devices in our rooms. Even when I did get a record player, it was not to be used after the designated bedtime. 
I look in my son's room at college and he has two video game consoles, a computer a 42" flat screen T.V. and the ever present smartphone. Until he left for college, however, his mother had him follow much the same routine I had followed when I was a child.  I commend her for using the Power of the Dinner Table with my kids when she could. I believe it is due to their time at the dinner table is what has ensured their success up to this point. Our parents were geniuses.  It is amazing how we don't often realize this until after we have had our own children. I am going to call my parents tomorrow and thank them for all of those times I missed a show I wanted to watch in order to complete my homework or honor a bedtime which I am sure was designed to encourage my reading. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Student Advisory Committees

I have long advocated for advisory committees for schools and over the years brought in parents, business partners, educators at the post-secondary level and even students to discuss needed improvements in programs and schools.  I patted myself on the back for bringing these people in to hear about what wonderful things we were doing in my classroom. Later, I wised up and actually brought them in and asked them what I should be teaching.  Mom was right about the two ears and one mouth thing. I have continued this practice but until recently I have always felt that I have gotten what I needed in terms of input from those sitting at the table. In the past three years, I have come to realize that although they are at the table, I really don't get much from the students in terms of what they want. Why would I expect to when in that type of setting they have been trained to sit and listen, be seen but not heard, not to speak unless spoken to. And of course only the best trained are invited to that particular table.
I changed my approach during the accreditation I participated in at Keokuk and repeated it here in Fort Dodge. I selected a diverse group and ensured that they were honest when questioned. I have a long way to go in this area, however, as I rely on student officers to provide me information about how students feel about initiatives we as adults have put in place.
My eyes have truly been opened while spending time in Rachel Hansen's Government class twice this year and John McBride's Journalism class as well. In Ms. Hansen's classroom the students are charged with designing and delivering their own "Declaration of Independence".  Remarkably, the two student groups both cited the lack of their voice in decision making in our school.  They proposed changes that are very imaginative and several I plan to implement in our school. Other issues they are protesting, once explained, they were remarkably understanding. I kick myself for not giving students the reasons for many of the rules/policies currently in place. Instead of reasons for the rules we all too often provide consequences when they are broken. We know full well that many of our consequences for rule infractions are ineffective in changing student behavior. Students generally follow rules because they have been "trained" to do so early in their school experience, they understand how doing so benefits them, or they value a relationship they have with the rule maker/enforcer.
We will be selecting a new schedule model we hope to transition to in the 2012-13 school year. Students have already played a big part in the process. I hope to increase their involvement over the next several months.  We have a group of students selected blindly from groups of students who are representing desired demographics. Surprisingly, I had better response from the students approached than I did the set of parents which were selected. I have them meet separately and record their questions and suggestions. I feel strongly that adult involvement tends to squelch honesty and creativity.
I have been sitting here this evening pondering the many things we need to get done over the next several weeks, one of which is to discuss possible changes to the student handbook. In other words, changes we will make in the rules we set at the building level. We do this early to ensure we have the opportunity to engage the board in discussions concerning policy when we feel it is necessary. Last year we put a new attendance policy in place which required board approval/action. I have always completed this process using other administrators, teachers and at times parents.
This year I plan to begin the process with students. I plan to have students discuss desired changes in their advisory period. I will compile the information and then hold a forum in the evening for them to come and debate the ideas with myself or other students. We will involve them in the discussion providing them the voice our founding fathers desired when writing their Declaration of Independence from English rule.
As stated earlier, we have a long way to go in bringing students into the governance of our school, but I think involving them in change and hearing from them during in-service is a step in the right direction. One day I hope to see student advisory committees established in each district and maybe even see a requirement for student involvement in policy development.