I Can’t Drive 55

If by some odd chance you’re reading me and you’re not reading Will Richardson at weblogg-ed, you’re missing the writing that most challenges me to do more, to move faster, to make a bigger difference. In this latest post, Will talks about the change that’s necessary,

We go back and forth in this community about whether teachers who use blogs should blog, or podcast or read RSS feeds. I’ve always hesitated to come down on one side or the other in that debate for a variety of reasons. But it’s become clear to me that the answer has to be yes. If you are an educator, I think you have little choice but to choose option 3 in the Marco Torres mantra: “You can complain, quit or innovate.” I know in many ways it stinks to have to be an educator at a moment in history when things are changing on a glacial scale. But what you signed up for is preparing kids for their futures. You have little choice but to deal.

Why won’t our kids be as well served if we don’t change ourselves? I mean we’re all products of the system, right? We all did ok. Things were changing when we went through school, right? Um, no. Not like this.

I don’t think it stinks to be an educator at this time. I think it’s the most empowering, exciting and energizing place we could possibly be for anyone who wants to make a real difference for kids, to do something important, to change for the better. Will Richardson keeps me from ever becoming complacent and that’s needed for all of us to keep moving forward.

Even if we’re racing, we’ll never go fast enough to keep up with the Web. In this race, some are home watching, some are buying tickets and showing up, and others are on the track. (Yeah, yeah, some don’t even know there’s a race on.) Me? I’d like to be on the track in an AC Cobra, with a 427 side-oiler–that ought to get G-Town there. Honestly though, I’m just moving up from the cheap seats. You’re driving now Will, but you won’t have to stay in the driver’s seat forever, we’ll get there.

Who’s blog is it, anyway?

I had an interesting request this week. What do you think of guest authors on G-Town talks? I have colleagues who aren’t willing to start a blog because they don’t think they have enough to say. But they do think they have enough to say in a post or two.

I think they can bring something valuable to G-Town talks because I’m the only person who currently generates the topic of each post. I’m learning from all that I’m reading on bloglines and from the readers who post here, but I think we might be able to take it a step further if we allow others to generate the topics too.

This is something I’ve seen done in a couple of places and I generally don’t like it as well as when I clearly know who’s authoring the entire blog. I wonder about continuity of themes and ideas–generally, readers know what to expect when they come to G-Town talks. If they like it, they return and if not, they turn elsewhere. Still, it seems like a way to bring more to the conversation.

As you can see, I’m undecided on this one. Keep it just me or invite others to generate posts too?

What’s love got to do with it?

I’ve been thinking about disagreements this week. Arguments, fights, misunderstandings. I realize something that I’m not sure I’ve ever fully understood before now. Whenever my husband and I have had disagreements over our twenty years of marriage, I’ve always known that I was more important to him than the argument.

Think about that idea. Because I’m not sure I could always say the same thing. Sometimes I think the fight became more important to me than he was. Not ultimately, obviously, but in the moment. Yet somehow I always knew with Derek, I was more important than the fight. That shouldn’t be interpreted that he didn’t hold his ground in an argument or articulate his point of view. But through any disagreement, I knew I was more important to him than anything we were discussing.

I consider the mediation that occurs in our offices. Guidance, the county’s social worker, our Dean of Students, me–we’re often trying to help two parties work something out. Dan, our Dean of Students, and I spent about five hours on one ridiculous disagreement between students this week and I know he spends countless hours more with other disagreements. It’s almost always a stupid fight between kids who “used to be” friends. What would happen if everyone could approach arguments valuing each other more than the fight?

This seems particularly important with people who are close, especially in the same family. That’s where the passion in a fight often explodes. And that’s where we should most value each other, more than whatever argument is at hand. I don’t know about you, but when I reflect on the arguments and disagreements I’ve had with the people I love most, they almost always seem absurd in hindsight.

So I’m going to give it a try. The next time I feel angry with someone, or frustrated, or hurt, I’m going to look at the person, see why I care about her, and realize that she is more important than the issue about which we’re angry. I hope my children can learn their father’s approach: that the person standing on the other side is much more important than the fight in between.

Fringe benefits

So I’m realizing this blogging gig has some fringe benefits that I didn’t expect. One of G-Town’s readers and a frequent commenter is Lisa, who happens to be my college roommate. Lisa and I graduated over twenty years ago. We’ve remained friends through a lot of life’s changes, seeing each other every couple of years. We are both busy working moms and we talk only once in a while. Blogging has given us a new way to connect.

Here’s the interesting thing about this blogging connection. Lisa isn’t an educator; she’s a human resource manager. Often she has commented about how similar a topic in one of my posts is to something she’s been thinking about. That makes sense because we both manage, and hopefully motivate, employees. The best part is that it’s inspired Lisa to create her own human resources blog, and now I get to go and read what’s on Lisa’s mind.

I’ve always thought of my audience as those in the school community, other principals, teachers, students, and community members. Now I realize it may also include other professionals, connecting us to a much broader audience, one with an important voice. I hope that what I’m writing reflects positively on public education.

Imagine if it actually could influence thinking about who we are as educators, what public school is really like, and what a tremendous profession it can be for young people making career choices. And if it can influence thinking in the private sector. Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation Lisa. I can’t wait to read you and see what I can learn.

This blog just isn’t getting it done.

I just realized something major through a conversation with other educators in a session with Will Richardson about changing school to keep up with the learning available in School 2.0. We’re talking about the urgency to really get educators to LEARN about everything that’s available through connections on-line, to understand the LEARNING that’s vital, and to see themselves as LEARNERS.

In the conversation, I mentioned that when I was a teacher, I often attended a workshop or a conference, returned to my classroom and implemented the idea into my own best practice. It impacted the students in my room, but I honestly didn’t care what happened in the rest of the school. It worked for me, for my students, and that was enough for me.

As a principal, I have the responsibility for the learning in every classroom in my building. But I realize now, if I’m really honest, that I’m still doing the same thing as the principal that I did as a teacher. I learned about blogging, bloglines, wikis, and podcasts. I returned to my office (instead of my classroom) and I added it to my best practice. I found the couple of teachers in my building who were doing it too and sought them out for conversations about this best practice.

I’ve done NOTHING to influence thinking or best practice in the rest of those classrooms. That’s my job now and I’m still behaving as I did when I was a teacher. Just doing my thing, what works for me, finding huge learning gains for myself, and letting the world continue as it always has for everyone who hasn’t happened onto what I’m doing.

Gutless. Safe. Not a leader. I need to make a change in my own best practice. I need to gather those teachers who are taking a risk, who are curious, who are learning on the Web, and along with them, we need to take our learning to everyone else. I’ve shown on this blog what’s important to me, I’ve had a strong voice, and I haven’t done squat to share it with my teachers, my students, my BOE, and my community. Let’s go, I’m ready. 

Small change

So what can I tell you, I like change. I’ve been resisting the urge to change my blog presentation, figuring readers were used to the daisy look. But, hey, I’m a girl who changes the furniture at least once per week at home and a couple of times per year in my office at school. This is a way to change without using any muscle. What do you think? I’m at a conference all day tomorrow, following up on “High School’s New Face” from last July where I learned about all of this blog business from Will, I’ll have to ask there if it’s proper blog etiquette to mix it up from time to time.

Ineligibility Procedures

Do you work in or attend a school with an ineligibility procedure? This means that if students don’t meet a teacher’s criteria, they will be ineligible for after school activities. This is an issue that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. It’s somewhat of a “hot button” issue for our school and something on which I have not been able to come to agreement with some of our faculty. I write about it now to clarify my own thinking and to solicit ideas from others.

The criteria for participating in non-credit bearing activities are based on five academic criteria. The student must be prepared for class. He must be working at a successful level, or, if not, at the student’s level of potential. She must have assignments up to date and not on the obligation list. Students must be present and on time for class. They must also exhibit positive class participation and cooperation.

Those students a teacher feels are not meeting the criteria above may not participate in extra-curricular activities during ineligible status until removed by the teacher. The teacher can place the student on probation for a week, remove the student, and extend the probation to ineligibility. Students who play school sports are removed from the sport if they land on ineligibility three times in a given season.

Teachers place the students on the list at their discretion. This year, the procedure has been changed in two ways. One, the student must be ineligible in two or more subjects to be ineligible for extra-curricular activities. Two, students may still attend practices/activities if they are participating in an after school “learning center” where there is a teacher available to help with school-work.

My thinking in making these changes is simple. Previously, the procedure seemed based on a reward and punishment model. “You do this for me or I take that away.” While I understand that philosophy and agree that our students should be taking care of business during the school day, I do not find the strictly punitive model to be motivating to students and effective. The addition of the two changes cited above offers the student support to get off of the ineligibility list through the learning center and allows him or her to continue with the activity, which can be extremely motivating to a student.

The addition of the two subjects or more section is to recognize that a good student may struggle from time to time in one subject. Last year, we had about half of our junior class facing the loss of Prom because of incompletion of a major research project. Do I think they should have taken care of the project? Of course. Do I think there are consequences built into the classroom procedures, within the power of the teacher, that are in place for that failure? Certainly, students receive lower grades, phone calls to parents, and serious implications for some in regard to passing the course. Do I think otherwise good students should lose a major high school event for lack of completion of one project? No, I don’t. And this is where I differ from some of my teachers.

I understand that this change, which makes perfect sense to me, also caused some teachers to feel that they weren’t supported. But how do I support something that I don’t believe in? I do believe in reasonable consequences for our students when they fall down, but I will never be able to support an extremely punitive environment. That’s not how I manage anyone in G-town, teachers and support staff included. So why would I manage students in that way? Readers, am I way off base on this one?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me. . .

I think teenagers get a bad rap sometimes. We took a trip to the Mall yesterday. My son is fourteen and I heard him ask his nineteen-year old sister if she remembered reaching the age where everyone looks at you as if you’re about to steal something from them. She agreed unequivocally, stating that there are two stores that she won’t enter to this day because of the way she was treated when she shopped there as a young teen. She said the saleswomen were rude, refused to help her, and made her feel like less than she was.

Now I understand that retail outlets have good reason to pay attention to teenagers because shoplifting is a problem that results in profit loss. I also remember from my old “retail” days when I managed convenience stores followed by pharmacies, that employee and vendors’ theft add up to a much more significant loss. But I also remember being taught to treat customers with the utmost respect to the point where when I saw an older woman stick something in her coat, I offered her a basket to keep it in and then showed her to the register.

Why then, are teenagers approached with such suspicion? Because a percentage of teenagers (just like adults) are less than reputable, certainly doesn’t mean we need to treat all kids as if they are ill intended.

I wonder how this translates to how we treat teenagers as they enter our schools. Certainly, it goes back to expectations once again. When we treat students with respect and dignity, they meet our expectations. Likewise, if we treat them with suspicion and disregard, they may decide they’d rather not return to our school at all. It probably also explains why some parents avoid school, poor treatment in school as a child stays in a person’s mind for a very long time.

Let’s make sure we’re not doing anything that causes someone to avoid our school at all costs, like my daughter who won’t ever return to a store at the Mall. We can’t afford to lose anyone’s business.

To retain or not to retain, that is the question.

We have a Dean of Students, Dan C., who handles discipline in G-Town. He and I had an interesting discussion this morning about retention. It’s not the first time we’ve had this discussion and it’s generally the same every time.

About two years ago, a considerable number of students were retained in the middle school because they failed multiple subjects. Dan’s point of view is that this consequence for lack of effort and achievement sends a powerful message to these students and to others who may be barely passing. My point of view is that it primarily increases the chances that the retained students will drop out. Dan argues that we can’t measure what effect it has on the students on the borderline and also that those retained students would likely have dropped out anyway.

My argument about the preponderance of research indicating the negative consequences does not convince Dan that retention is a poor choice. The National Association of School Psychologists cite the following in a position paper on retention:

Research examining the overall effects of 19 empirical studies conducted during the 1990s compared outcomes for students who were retained and matched comparison students who were promoted. Results indicate that grade retention had a negative impact on all areas of achievement (reading, math and language) and socio-emotional adjustment (peer relationships, self esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance).

Again, Dan argues that this does not measure what impact retention may have on those students in danger of being retained, or who are barely passing. This position paper by the NASP is sufficient evidence for me that retained students are in more serious danger of dropping out based on retention alone. Do we sacrifice the retained students in order to teach the rest of the student population a lesson?

I’m not arguing for social promotion. Here’s where Dan and I agree. If we are saying students aren’t adequately prepared for ninth grade, what are we going to do differently? Just repeating the same thing they already failed at is not likely to help. We need a bridge year or semester or something. And when do we examine the underlying reasons the students are failing? I am hard pressed to believe that it’s just because they refuse to do the work and we need to teach them a lesson, a work ethic. I just don’t believe that children choose to fail, rarely, if ever. Where then is our responsibility to go back and evaluate our curriculum and instruction? Our remedial programs? Our early identification of students who need additional support?

And still I have students entering 9th grade this year at 15 or 16 years of age. I’m not talking about one or two kids.  How will I possibly motivate them to stick around until they are 19 or 20 years old for a diploma? I would consider an accelerated program in high school to get them through in three years, as Dan wisely suggests, but they most likely require AIS and remediation and extra time, not less time.

I come back to the responsibility of instruction and programs that is mine as the principal and is detailed in this report by reading specialist Debra Johnson.

Meaningful Learning

Skilled teachers intensify learning by providing authentic instruction and meaningful assignments while holding high expectations for all students. Such assignments deal with the significant concepts of a discipline, incorporate higher-order thinking skills, are connected to the “real world,” and allow substantial time for discussion and idea sharing among students (Peterson, 1995). Furthermore, teachers can employ several learning models to create active learning environments that reflect a shift in the relationships among teachers, students, and knowledge. In these environments, students work together to frame their own questions and investigate them. Active environments require collaboration and communication, and encourage more analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of information than do traditional classrooms (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2000). Active learning environments require students to take responsibility for their own learning and develop strategies for learning (Costello, 1996). Instruction in active environments emphasizes depth of learning rather than breadth of learning (Peterson, 1995).

Is this the kind of learning our retainees experienced? Did we do enough? Did they get the best instruction and intervention along the way? Did we teach them to read for comprehension? Did we involve the necessary support personnel? Did we form relationships with the students and their families? Can we ever do enough? I guess when our graduation rate is in the 95%-100% range instead of only 79%, then perhaps I’ll be satisfied. The problem for me is that they’re not statistics, they’re kids who I know, and I also know they’re much better off entering the world with a diploma.

Hooked on learning

I think this blogging gig is actually leading to meaningful conversations about education. Face to face conversations. I’m running into teachers and students in the hallway who have read a blog post and then want to talk about it. This is much different than the casual, “how’s it going?” conversations that normally take place. They are a meaningful dialogue where both professionals and students are reading, reflecting, and responding.

Blogging may just lead to a professional learning community where we talk more about our ideas on education than the lack of toner in the printers. Even on a bad day at work, when I’m inundated with tasks that seem mundane or meaningless, I feel energized by what I read. I’m reminded, every day, of what’s important in education. 

I’m encouraged and uplifted by the meaningful conversations taking place in the hallways, on-line on blogs, through email, and in my community. I truly hope that this continues to grow, that we’ll really think about what’s important in G-town and more important, that we’ll talk about it. All the petty little things that people find to complain about may actually give way to a much higher ground. I’m seeing it and I’m believing it. I’m also energized by it and will be a better principal because of everything that my readers and other bloggers teach me. Yeah, I’m totally hooked.