Renovate or rebuild?

Do you ever imagine your ideal high school? I do. I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of education and how dramatically learning will shift in the next 10 years. I wonder if public high schools will shift to mirror the learning shift. I wonder if we’ll plan the changes we need in public education quickly enough. I suspect we’ll fall short.

While I’m getting my head around School 2.0, I can’t even begin to grasp how to shift the system I’m currently working in to one so dramatically different. I have this circular conversation with myself where I end up thinking I would need to start from scratch and start a whole new school. Sort of the retail philosophy of finding it easier to tear down an existing store and build a brand new one on the same location, rather than trying to renovate the old one.

Except I love the old store. I really want to renovate it, to transform it into a center for learning that utilizes all of the technologies that are available. I have the big picture. It’s the details I struggle with, like budget and resources, like moving people forward who may be very happy with the current system.

I worry that the enormity of the task will make it too overwhelming to tackle and nothing will happen. Learning is changing every second of every day, with information so readily available that just like on-line shoppers have lessened retail business, on-line learning will lessen our vital spot in the community. If we hope to be the center of learning, if we hope to keep people coming to our “store”, we better make sure we’re the best shop in town. 

Blog Evolution

When I originally set up this blog in July, it was without a whole lot of planning for the future. I was interested in finding a way to connect with my students, faculty, staff, and parents. I thought it would be a way to get my ideas out there about relatively mundane activities at G-Town.

Then, without any forethought, it went in this other direction where I was writing for a different audience, an audience of fellow educators. I remember asking Will Richardson what he thought about where G-Town talks was going and where I had intended it to go. That was in August and Will thought I was probably looking at two different blogs. I never thought for a second I could manage both and now I find some readers in G-Town. Some students have chimed in, a couple of regular readers in my teachers and staff, a parent or two. The two different audiences are beginning to converge.

Up until this point, I haven’t done much to put this out there in G-Town as a public relations tool, or even as a communications tool. I’m wondering if I should. In little ways, I’ve made it public. I’ve listed this blog address at the bottom of my email signature and our tech guy linked to it from our school website. Should I put an article in the newsletter? Should I talk to my teachers about it? Does that just become self- promotion? A reader recently commented on the creative writing nature of my blog and it made me wonder if readers will figure I should have better things to do with my time. And yes, Courtney and Mrs. Furman, I read your wonderful comments in response to him–thank you. But it does make me wonder if that will be echoed in our community.

Maybe I should just quietly continue on, writing as I am now. Sharing with those who I know are interested, those who are also blogging. Problem is, that doesn’t feel like I’m exactly leading then, does it?

All the children of the world

Why are people’s differences such a big deal to some of us? I just don’t understand this and I’ve tried. We’re ALL DIFFERENT. I hate to have to state the obvious, but if it’s so obvious, then why do so many people miss it?

I spent some time with two intelligent young educators, Pat and Tim, the other day. They’re in our school for a college course at SUNY Fredonia, about understanding multicultural students. It sounds like a lot has been emphasized in their coursework about how our students differ from others, as Native Americans.

My thinking on this is that ethnicity doesn’t define a person; it’s just a part of who he is. Every student in the classroom is different; ethnicity is just one piece to understanding the student. And they differ in about a gazillion ways. These two guys got that, and better yet, they realized that it’s their responsibility as the teacher to know EVERY student in the classroom. From Rachel’s Challenge yesterday, “input equals output”. The more teachers put into their students, the more they care, the more they get to know them and their unique interests, the more time spent designing lessons that are of interest to them, the better. These two young guys get that it’s about teaching our students first, the subject second. Each student.

Now for anyone who thinks I just said content isn’t important–wrong! But I am saying that if you don’t connect with those students, if they don’t feel that you care about them as much or more than you care about your subject– forget about it. They aren’t going to learn your content from you anyway.

But this isn’t the only reason I’m thinking about this. I also have students who are talking to me about their own differences in regard to their sexual orientation. They talk about acceptance and tolerance and support.

I’m sorry that it matters. I’m sorry that their “differences” are such a big deal. I’m sorry that they will feel defined by this difference, instead of it just being a part of them.

Why can’t we just see the person? Why do we have to see Native or White or straight or gay or rich or poor? Why can’t we just see the person? Why is this so difficult for so many? Why must we be defined by people’s notions of us based on what they see on the surface? Why can’t we take more time to truly know the person?



I accept Rachel’s Challenge

     Along with two of our guidance counselors, Beth and Jennifer, I went to see an assembly at a neighboring school today. It’s called Rachel’s Challenge and you can check it out at their website. This was Rachel Scott’s story, as told through video and a family friend, Derek Kilgore. As described on Rachel’s Challenge,

Rachel Scott was the first person killed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Her acts of kindness and compassion coupled with the contents of her 6 diaries have become the foundation for one of the most life-changing school programs in America – Rachel’s Challenge.
Attending this assembly was an amazing experience as an adult.  I can only imagine what it feels like for our students.  Rachel talked through her journals, essays, and friends about starting a chain reaction of compassion. I found her story, her character, her spirit to be inspirational and an excellent reminder of the difference one person can make.
     I returned to G-Town thinking about my daily interactions with students and teachers and how important they are, not to be taken for granted. I try to stand in the hallways between class periods, every time the bell rings, just like thousands of teachers across the country. I stand out there to supervise, to model that for my teachers, and to see our students. After this assembly, I realize how important my behavior is at that moment and at others. How important it is to make contact with every student, to greet each kid, to smile and acknowledge him or her. I realize that the small things we do make a difference too. One interaction at a time.
     Rachel’s Challenge was the kind of assembly program I want my own children to participate in and we’ll work hard to find a way to bring it to Gowanda. Rachel Scott touched my heart today and I accept Rachel’s Challenge to look for the best in others, to set goals and write about them, to choose my influences and to make them positive, to use kind words, and to start a chain reaction in G-Town.

Bosses’ Day?

Today was Bosses’ Day. I know this because the five women who work in my main office sent me a gorgeous bouquet of flowers, along with a very nice card.  I received a dish garden from our athletic directors and a card with someone’s face that was so close up I could see his pores. Sorry, I’ve got no explanation for that one.

It’s a strange occasion to celebrate, if you ask me. These are the people I owe my thanks to, on a daily basis. They keep our school running smoothly, along with our teachers and support staff. I rely on our secretaries, custodians and cleaners, teaching assistants, technology staff, and teachers. I trust them to do a good job. I hope that they’ll have high expectations for themselves. 

My biggest piece in this as the “boss”? Trusting them to do their jobs and supporting them while they do it. Following up with those employees who aren’t getting it done in G-Town. And leading by example, with high expectations for myself too.

It’s everyone doing the job that we’re hired for, and doing it well, that keeps G-Town moving forward. So bosses’ day? I’m just taking care of my piece of the puzzle, just like everyone else.

Strange suspicions

I’m frustrated. I tried to explain blogging to someone over breakfast. Here’s how the conversation went. 

Them: You’re giving your ideas away for nothing. Someone else could take your ideas and advance their own careers or take credit for them.

Me: My ideas aren’t that valuable. If someone benefits from them, great. They also aren’t all that earth shattering.

Them: If your ideas aren’t valuable, then why are people reading your blog?

Me: We’re a community of learners, interested in the same topic, education. We share our ideas freely, hoping to advance learning for everyone.

Them: Nope, there’s gotta be something in it for them.

Me: Can’t they just be like me? Hoping to discuss that which they’re most passionate about? Hoping to connect, influence thinking, learn something?

Them: Nope, other people aren’t like you. You’re going to be taken advantage of.

Me: I don’t want to discuss this any longer.

Did I give up too quickly? Are these just the most cynical people alive? Why was it so hard for me to articulate what this is about? I felt defensive and judged by people who have maybe read one or two posts of mine. And when I tried to show them how I’ve been linked on other blogs like Christian Long’s think:lab, forget about it, I totally lost the argument.

Them: What’s he hoping to gain by doing that?

Me: Nothing! He actually helps me because he directs more readers my way.

Them: For what? So they can take your ideas?

Me: I don’t want to discuss this any longer.

Maybe this is the same way our students feel when defending their use of social networking sites?

Choosing the right route

I always have a pile of professional reading to attend to; in addition to the reading I do every day through my bloglines account and the daily papers. Currently, I have three journals and two professional books in the pile. I can’t ever seem to get to all of it, so I try to choose wisely.

Lately, I’ve been realizing how important those choices are in our future. During the 2005 winter break, I read Creating a Culture of Literacy: A Guide for Middle and High School Principals. This was sent to principals free of charge by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and is authored by Melvina Phillips.  For me, this book completely framed a major problem for our district, adolescent literacy. It was a catalyst for change, as I was able to articulate this to our superintendent, Charles Rinaldi, who totally supported and planned the literacy initiative that is ongoing in our district. I believe that the work our experts (our teachers) are doing right now will lead to great things for our students as we evaluate and change the course of reading in G-Town.  The best thing is that others, those most involved and able to support change, own the initiative.

Here’s the thing that’s on my mind. What if I hadn’t read that book? True, I already had reading on my mind because my high school teachers were telling me that our students don’t comprehend the Regents questions on their exams. I also nearly lost a student to graduation because of reading difficulties. So I was on the trail of the reading problem already. But I’m more convinced than ever that our planning for improvement must be purposeful. It must be data driven. More important, it must be kid driven. We have to continuously ask hard questions. We can never be content with the way things are, even when they’re going well, we have to ask, “but how can it be better?”

Our newly formed Curriculum Council, made up of the administrative team and the school leaders, both grade level and department, are taking on this task right now. We are evaluating what’s most important in teaching and learning, what’s happening in G-Town, how it’s supported now, and how it needs to be supported in the future. If there are any elephants in the corner, we’re bringing them into the middle of the room, looking at them from every angle, asking questions, and making them better.


Blog strokes/pats/props

Blogging is professional development through reading and on-line conversation. It’s my place to write about a difficult issue and then put it away in my head. It’s my space to solicit ideas from other professionals. It’s a vehicle by which I may influence thinking or clarify my position. It’s a public relations tool. It’s a connection to people near and far. And now, I realize it’s positive reinforcement.

How often do you suppose a high school principal gets a pat on the back? Much of the time, we’re called on to solve problems big and small and to listen to complaints about things we have little control over like the lack of toner in the lab (which was ordered 3 weeks ago). We get to make decisions that make life better at school and we get to help students/parents/faculty out with problems too. We’re involved in planning the big picture, which I love. Helping the kids is the best part and sometimes it feels like we actually make a difference. Often, we are managing the day to day stuff and a great secretary like mine makes that part much easier.

But it’s not like teaching where I could see the difference on a daily basis, when I knew my students really well and could gauge my success by their engagement and success. Being a principal is challenging and non stop and just the pace I need, but I can’t always measure how I’m doing.

So how is blogging helping me to measure my performance? When I read the comments and see the links. When I realize that my thoughts are of some small value to others and that I’m not completely off base. When one of my colleagues writes and says, “Yes!” When an old friend or a stranger posts a comment that says, “hey, you get me, that’s just what I’m thinking about.” Most of all, when I follow a comment to a post and find a blog created in Florida to teach blogging with me listed as the first homework assignment. Me. My blog.  On the days that I come home exhausted, feeling like I’ve accomplished little and there’s still no toner, that feels pretty darned good. It elevates me. Thank you, EGHS!

Don’t stop believing

The Seneca Nation of Indians sponsored a family carnival this evening. The three contract schools participated with JOM faculty, Seneca Nation employees, faculty, staff and administration volunteering. I think they planned for 500 people to attend and we ran out of tickets. It didn’t matter though, because the kids all played whatever games they wanted to and there was food enough for everyone.

Each district sponsored a welcome booth and each school within the districts sponsored a game booth. A friendly competition was waged among the three schools where carnival-goers voted for the best welcome booth.

The thing that struck me about the evening was the reaction to the Gowanda pride shown by all of us. As we signed in participants, we encouraged them to go to the ballot box and to vote Gowanda the best booth/best school. There is almost a reluctance to say, “yes, Gowanda rocks!” and not just at tonight’s event. But you know what I noticed? The more pride we showed in our school, the more comfortable our students were. I hope at least a couple of parents and kids left thinking, “I’m glad to be a part of that school.”

I’m still, in my third year, combating the “it’s Gowanda, what do you expect?” attitude. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I expect the best, that’s what we’ve got and that’s what we will continue to be. I love Gowanda and I’m very proud to be the high school principal here. Not anywhere else–not the #1 ranked school in football or Lacrosse or Math or English–Gowanda. We’ll get there. I’m in it for the long haul, G-Town, and you’re worth it. Believe it. I do.