Are you a writer? Show them.

Nate shares his Storybird about friendship with his class.

For the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to spend multiple days in many of our classrooms. Last year I wrote this post about my “principal’s visit” days and how enjoyable it was to spend quality time with students and staff.

These visits not only serve as an escape from the drudgery of office tasks, they allow me to see instructional strategies at work; how we address curriculum; the engagement of students in a variety of learning scenarios; how resources are being allocated; teacher-student relationships and peer interactions; whether schedules are appropriate; types of assessment being used; and planning processes.

There’s no better feeling than the jubilation of seeing a child excel at a task or when a teacher’s heart and love for kids lead her work with students each day. On the flip side, it’s possible for an administrator to develop a certain “gut feeling” when something doesn’t seem quite right in the classroom.

So far this year, I’ve had the chance to read interactive stories with kindergarten; facilitate small reading groups, review time concepts, and introduce Little Bird Tales in Grade 2; spend the entire day with Grade 6 inWashington, D.C.; help students create their first Prezis and collaborate using Google docs in grade 4; explore point of view through reading different versions of The Three Little Pigs (with one of my favorite tales, The True Story of the Three Little Pigswith some of our young English language learners; help students in our Life Skills classes interact with math activities on the iPad and explore phonics patterns; and analyze text structure and write collaboratively, complete small group math activities, and discuss the writing process in Grade 5. I am looking forward to time in grades 1, 3, and our special classes in the weeks ahead!

A month or so ago, Dean Shareski wrote a post entitled It’s not 1985, about the need for us to ensure our students become fluent in digital literacy, particularly in writing. That, if we continue to teach writing as we always have, we are doing a disservice to our students. I agree wholeheartedly, and one of the reasons why I so enjoyed my visit with grade 5 writing classes is because I had the chance to discuss with them my journey as a writer.

Had I taught this “lesson” a few years ago, there would have been no mention of blogs. Or digital footprints. Or comments and interactions with others. ClustrMaps. Blog analytics. Storybirds. iPhones. Facebook. Or authentic audiences.

It went a little something like this:

I have always loved writing. I filled spiral-bound notebooks with story after story. Then, when I was in middle school, my family got its first computer: an Apple II GS. And suddenly, I learned how to type. I became more prolific in my writing and could edit with ease. I learned how to cut, copy, and paste text. My pieces were more polished. So, as technology changed, so did my platforms for writing.

I showed them my blog. We talked about purpose and audience. I told them what a “digital footprint” was, and how it is shaped by everything we do online. Every photo we post or tag, every word we write. I emphasized that it is important that they control their digital footprint and make it a positive, lasting impression of which they can be proud. We talked about how I use embedded hyperlinked text, videos and images to lead my readers to other resources. I showed them my ClustrMap and Feedjit stream. They wanted to know how dots appeared in the middle of the oceans! I shared comments with them, and many of them understood the importance of quality commenting from their work with Kidblog in fourth grade. Then, I walked through the process of how I wrote my first Storybird, which I shared with them at our opening assembly. I had the idea while I was driving in my car. I didn’t have access to paper or pencil. I use my iPhone to record my ideas. Ramblings, really. I told them how my brainstorming paragraph was riddled with errors and that, when I started using Storybird, I was inspired by the amazing illustrations so much that I revised a lot of my original text. My story took on a life of its own when I engaged with the Storybird format. I shared how I shared it with my primary audience – our students and staff at an assembly, but also published it on my blog and shared with my virtual community as well.

Using my repetitive writing pattern as a model, grade 5 students have begun writing their own stories. I had the opportunity to read several of their stories, and they are beautiful. I am looking forward to working with their teacher so she can embed them on her webpage to share with families.

Do I think this conversation was meaningful for my students? Yes. I received a lovely thank you email from the teacher expressing her gratitude for taking the time to share my “story.” And isn’t that what we should be striving to do at every opportunity? Share our stories with students?

My “gut feeling” is that when we teach students to write, we do so too methodically. We sometimes allow adherence to form trump creativity. We assess according to state-issued rubrics that call for a certain structure to be followed. We “score” students on their abilities to be focused, include enough content, stay traditionally organized, use proper grammar and spelling, and use “style.” We neglect audience. We’re churning out writer-robots who spit back the format they think we want to see. We graphic-organizer-them to exhaustion.

Yes, we need to help them learn structures of writing. But we can’t stop there. We can’t repeat the same lessons year after year and expect them to produce the same types of writing over and over again. Snooze.

In a #cpchat conversation recently, we pondered, How do we know that our use of technology is improving learning opportunities for students? And we talked about the typical measures that schools/states/nations are using to determine if students are “proficient” in academic areas. Historically, our school has been high-performing on the state writing assessment. Last year we were in the top quintile of performance for schools in the state. What does that mean? That our students can write in response to a prompt, demonstrating they have control over conventions, organization, style, content, and focus?

(Incidentally, I hear many teachers state with great exasperation, Style is just so hard to teach! when we ponder over students’ lower scores in this area. Perhaps… if we allowed students’ creativity to flourish, and make it a priority… style would take care of itself? The students whose Storybirds I read were able to embrace style like they never would have on a paper-pencil assessment.)

But how would students’ command of writing on traditional state assessments translate to proficiency in digital literacy? According to the NCTE, what do 21st century readers and writers need to know and be able to do?

Today, the NCTE definition of 21st century literacies makes it clear that further evolution of curriculum, assessment, and teaching practice itself is necessary.

Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies.

These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities, and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Twenty-first century readers and writers need to

• Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
• Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
• Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
• Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
• Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts
• Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

Administrators and teachers, consider the influence you could have on your teachers and students; on instructional methods and curricular choices; on developing your students’ 21st century literacy skills. If you are an administrator who has discovered the importance of ensuring your students are fluent digital readers and writers, how are you modeling this in your learning organization? How are you sharing with your students?

The bar has been raised.

“How do we get reluctant administrators on board with utilizing technologies to communicate, connect, and collaborate?”

This is one of the most prevalent questions I encounter when chatting with educators on Twitter, through informal conversations, and in presentations I’ve shared. It came through loud and clear in the Connected Principals ISTE session that teachers want their administrators to value the opportunities to use technologies to enhance learning opportunities for students and to encourage collaboration and connected learning.

I decided to roll with Scott McLeod’s prompt suggestion of: Using the National Educational Technology Standards for Administrators (NETS-A) as a starting point, what are the absolutely critical skills or abilities that administrators need to be effective technology leaders?

How do reluctant administrators begin? By owning up to the fact that their participation and leadership in this area is essential. It’s crucial. This is one of my favorite graphics that Scott created:

In my opinion, it can happen…. I’ve seen many rogue teachers propel their classes forward in a manner not necessarily supported or understood by the administration. But it’s not easy. And it’s not systemic. And it won’t be as meaningful for all kids as it needs to be.

The NETS-A was developed with a critical understanding that the bar has been raised for school leaders. A school leader who wishes to “create and sustain a culture that supports digital age learning must become comfortable collaborating as co-learners with colleagues and students around the world” (aka “I don’t do technology” is no longer acceptable.)  Also, this framework seeks to help school leaders propel their organizations forward as members of “dynamic learning communities.” Vision is vital.

The NETS-A are organized around 5 major themes: Visionary Leadership, Digital Age Learning Culture, Excellence in Professional Practice, Systemic Improvement, and Digital Citizenship. 

If you are an administrator, read the descriptions of the components of each category and ask yourself, “Am I there yet?” If so, how will you influence and develop others in order to contribute to the shared vision? If not, how will you begin to develop professionally in order to get there? So you can get your teachers and kids there?

Visionary Leadership: Educational administrators inspire and lead development and implementation of a shared vision for comprehensive integration of technology to promote excellence and support transformation throughout the organization.

Key ideas: all stakeholders; purposeful change; maximize digital resources; exceed learning goals; support effective instructional practices; develop and implement technology-infused strategic plans; advocate for this vision at the local, state, and national levels

Digital Age Learning Culture: Educational Administrators create, promote, and sustain a dynamic, digital-age learning culture that provides a rigorous, relevant, and engaging education for all students.

Key ideas: ensure instructional innovation; model and promote effective use of technology for learning; provide learner-centered environments to meet the individual needs of students; ensure effective practice in the study of technology and infusion across curriculum; promote and participate in learning communities that allow for global, digital-age collaboration

Excellence in Professional Practice: Educational Administrators promote an environment of professional learning and innovation that empowers educators to enhance student learning through the infusion of contemporary technologies and digital resources. 

Key ideas: allocate time, resource and access to ensure ongoing professional growth in technology fluency and integration; facilitate and participate in learning communities to nurture administrators, teachers, and staff; promote and model effective communication and collaboration using digital tools; stay current on the latest educational research and emerging trends in educational technology to improve student learning

Systemic Improvement: Educational Administrators provide digital-age leadership and management to continuously improve the organization through the effective use of information and technology resources.

Key ideas: lead purposeful change to maximize achievement of learning goals through appropriate use of technology and media-rich resources; collaborate to collect, analyze, and share data to improve staff performance and student learning; recruit highly competent personnel who use technology creatively and proficiently; leverage strategic partnership to support systemic improvement; manage and maintain a robust infrastructure for technology

Digital Citizenship: Educational Administrators model and facilitate understanding of social, ethical and legal issues and responsibilities related to an evolving digital culture.

Key ideas: ensure equitable access to appropriate digital tools and resources to meet the needs of all learners; model and establish policies for safe, legal, and ethical use of digital information/technology; promote and model responsible social media interactions; model and facilitate a shared cultural understanding and involvement in global issues through the use of communication and collaboration tools. (ISTE, NETS-A, 2009)

When I read over these components, none appear glaringly over-demanding.  I cannot image an instance where an administrator wouldn’t consider these competencies important enough to at least begin to acknowledge, given the needs of our children who walk through our schools’ doors each day. Is it going to happen in a year? No. Will competencies and the expected skill set of a principal change continuously throughout her career? Yes. Are the daily demands of a principal exceedingly unreasonable and intolerable some days? Absolutely.

But I think where it begins is with connections. It begins by developing a supportive network of peers that can enhance your comfort and familiarity with the components of these domains. I think where it begins is with no excuses. Try something new. Read about the latest. Communicate in a different way than you did before. You’ll find that you like it. Empower your teachers and students to help you develop in this area professionally, and share what you learn with others.

In last year’s post for Leadership Day, I reflected upon my experiences utilizing various technologies in my role as an administrator. I conjectured about how it came to be that I became so comfortable with the tools and connecting, collaborating, and communicating via social media. I re-read the list of ways in which I used technology to communicate with my school community and further my own professional growth, and this made me realize that my knowledge base has blossomed in so many different directions since Leadership Day 2010. I owe much of this to to the ever-expanding network of professionals I have the privilege to engage with each day and my own self-driven desire to continue to learn more about the benefits of connected learning. Thank you to everyone who continues to contribute. A post recently written by Jon Becker really made me think. Yes, many of us are good at sharing, collaborating, creating. But what do we have to show for it? How can we demonstrate our growth in ways that demonstrate the impact on student learning? I am going to set a goal of sharing more of those stories this year. Of working to ensure what happens in our classrooms isn’t necessarily about the latest tool or gadget, but rather has a focus on learning.

It’s Leadership Day 2011! I hope you’ll add to the conversation!

Getting to “I Can”

Educator Kiran Bir Sethi shared this inspirational message in November 2009, so perhaps you’ve already heard the story of how she and her colleagues in India’s Riverside School empowered their students to lead change among themselves, their school, their community, and their country. I just recently viewed this talk and found her message to be so simple, so real, and so attainable that I wished to share it with you.

Sethi sought to design a process that could “consciously infect the mind with the “I Can Button.” She believed that if learning was embedded in real world contexts, thus blurring the boundaries between school and life, that children would embark a meaningful learning journey. The steps of this process involve students seeing the change, changing themselves, and then leading the change in others.

Aware – Enable – Empower

Feel – Imagine – Do

This process directly increased student well-being and allowed students to become more competent and less helpless in their own learning. I was so intrigued by Sethi’s descriptions of the authentic examples of how her students changed the perceptions of child labor in their community. Having first lived the experience, they enabled themselves to transform their own thinking. These experiences changed mindsets. They caused her students to passionately educate and lead adults in their community to understand more about this issue. And these weren’t high school students taking to the streets with their message- these were 10 and 11-year olds.

The “I Can” mindset is a shift from “teacher telling me” to “I can do it.” Isn’t this what we want for all of our students? How can we make this happen in our classrooms on a daily basis? This technique may seem well-suited for lessons involving the social sciences, but what about math? Reading? What about the pressures for students to succeed on those pesky standardized tests?

The Riverside School parents had the same questions. While they appreciated that their children were becoming better human beings, they said to Sethi, Show us the grades. As she replied in her talk, And we did. Her students outperformed the top 10 schools in India in math, reading, and science. When children are empowered, they have the tools they need to do well in all aspects of their lives and education.

The Riverside School students influenced their city to devote time and “give to the children” because in the future, the chlidren will give back to the community. As we debate over tax increases to fund our schools and deal with incessant budget crises across our nation and beyond, I sometimes think our taxpayers and politicians fail to recognize that an investment in our students’ education is an investment in human capital. We want our children to return to the communities that educated them, and use their gifts to enhance our lives in many ways. Sethi’s students inspired their communities to recognize this important fact.

Sethi ends with, Contagious is a good word.  As we work to inspire children to say, “I can,” their enthusiasm will empower us as a learning community to say, “We can.”

How will you infect your learning community this year?

I learned to love to read.

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user alex.ragone

Sometimes we as administrators take for granted how easy it is to contact a teacher during the instructional day. Call the room. Leave a personal voicemail. Email them. Send a Skype message. While the lines of communication are open, they can also potentially interrupt instruction and learning. Flashback to the early 1980s, when I was in first grade. My teacher, Mrs. Koller, whom I adored, needed to step outside into the hallway to have a conversation with another staff member. Times were different then… no one had to arrange for coverage by a certified teacher to watch her class of  sprightly six-year-olds. We would be just fine on our own.

I can still picture very clearly in my mind where we were sitting when the other teacher popped her head in the door to get Mrs. Koller’s attention. My classmates and I were seated criss-cross-applesauce on the carpet. Mrs. Koller was seated in her rocking chair, the place from which she engaged our minds and hearts by reading aloud to us. When her colleague requested her attention, she had a variety of options. She could have had us talk quietly to our neighbors until she returned. She could have asked us to return to our seats and complete another task. She could have given us no directions and allowed the free-for-all to ensue. :)

Instead, she looked at the group of students seated patiently at her feet. She handed Charlotte’s Web to me, and said, “Lynmarie, I would like you to continue reading to the class. Please sit in my chair!”

My heart swelled with pride. My mind raced! Would I be fluent enough for my classmates to understand me? Would I be able to hold their attention? I pulled myself onto what felt like the world’s most distinguished chair, and confidently read the next several pages of the story to my classmates. I remember feeling so incredibly proud that she chose me for this task. Perhaps it was because I was seated near the front of the circle. Perhaps it was because she was confident in my abilities to read the text. For whatever the reason, it is one of my most cherished memories from elementary school.

She trusted me. She empowered me. She believed in me. I always loved stories, but when Mrs. Koller handed that book to me, I learned to love to read.

#schooldidagoodthing

Thanks, @thenerdyteacher, for encouraging us to take the time to remember and share the wonderful things school has done for us!

Screen shot 2011-07-06 at 8.49.49 PM

You know who you are.

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user always be cool

So a little bird tweets me that there is some sort of list out and about that has my name on it. Neat-o!

Only, upon further inspection, I examined the list and realized, Hey. Let’s all simmer down here. The fact that my name appears on that list is silliness. I know for a fact there are other edu-tweeters out there that are waaay more influential than me. (And have a significantly higher Klout score, for what it’s worth. (Not much.)) Plenty of fantastic people are represented, from whom I learn an awful lot on a daily basis. But this post is not going to debate who should or shouldn’t be on that list. To do so would give it even more attention than it warrants.

What’s worth recognizing is that the list exists. And why is that? Because someone is paying attention to us. We, as a collective network of educators who care about children and their futures, are sharing with one another on a regular basis and helping to influence our practices in positive ways. People are noticing.

I’m thinking about my network. I can easily name ten people who influenced my practice today. Do I need to publicize it in a list? No.

You know who you are.

This influence is not limited to the intertubes, of course. I’m considering the people who’ve shaped me into the educator I am trying to be today. Most of those people aren’t on Twitter. They don’t blog. They don’t have Facebook accounts, can’t get into Google+ no matter how many invites they receive (thanks for nothing, Google), and they surely were not at ISTE. But their influence, care, compassion, and support have forever changed me. They’re the people that demand I put the phone away when we’re out to dinner. Or at an administrative retreat. (I was taking notes, I swear!)

You know who you are.

Tonight I was all set to compose my post-ISTE reflection post, and it seems as though I am now going to combine both my reflections of that event with my ramblings about online popularity. They’re weirdly related.

Cliques. Clusters. Cadres. Cohorts. Cavorting. Cackling. Keynotes. Abuse of alliteration. Cafes. Conversations. Contempt for Comic Sans. Connected Principals. Some sort of fancy dance. All of this and more, at ISTE 11! Many of the ISTE reflection posts have focused on the power of relationships, the importance of conversations, and the jr.-high-esque social mentalities that can ensue when you bring a whole bunch of people together. #sigh

I’d like to highlight two of my favorite memories from ISTE. First, this: Kids displaying their awesomeness. Like this sharp-dressed young man:

who eloquently explained how his school’s project involved using technology to improve our Earth’s ecology. I listened to his podcast using ear buds that probably 100 other people placed in their ears. And I didn’t really care. He shared his thoughts in carefully dictated English, his second language, mind you. This group had it made. They sent out recruiters – pint-sized bits of adorableness- into the crowds to ask attendees, “Do you want to hear our presentation about technology and ecology?” Heck yes, I do. And then they led me to the booth. Gold.

To the kids who inspire me every day, from those in my first sixth grade class to the children I only briefly interacted with at ISTE: You are amazing. You know who you are.

My second favorite memory of ISTE is Irene from the Newbie Lounge. I wish I had taken a photo of  Irene. She was truly awesome. By no means in her first years on the job (or her first twenty years), Irene sat on the couch with her iPad 2 and called out, “Can you help me with this?” as I walked by, with just a few minutes to go before our Connected Principals panel session. (Thanks, by the way, to everyone who attended. It was slightly overwhelming.) I wanted a bottled water desperately. I glanced at the mile-long concessions line longingly and then thought, What the hell am I thinking? This person needs me. So I sat with Irene for about twenty minutes and walked her through the process of bookmarking a website on her Safari browser. She was truly astounded that whenever she wanted to visit that wiki filled with resources from the last session she attended, she could just go to her bookmarks and … poof! There it was. She was so happy. I was so happy.

Irene, thank you for centering me and helping me realize how much I love being a teacher. I will agree with others that the shared conversations in hallways, cafes, museums, sidewalks, and #Edubros venues were certainly well worth the price of admission. I became a tad bit emotional having to say goodbye to some very good friends on my last day there. Yes, I said it, friends. Real live avatar-people that turned into friends. Shocking! Thank you to the presenters and attendees, young and old, who inspired me at ISTE.

You know who you are.

I guess, that in the end, that’s all that really matters. That you know the positive influences you have on the work and lives of others. I agree with Kristina that many of us felt as though something was missing before we developed this supportive network of professionals via Twitter, blogging, and other media. The connections have certainly added value to our lives.

Yet in a way I also disagree. I am not so sure that something was missing so much as it was lost. Lost inside of each of us. After experiencing powerful learning, working to positively influence others, and doing the right things for kids, every one of us should be able to examine our personal accomplishments and be proud. Be very, very proud. We will make mistakes, falter, and lose our way. We will share ideas and then take too long to act on them. Just pick yourself up, put a plan in place, do something, and continue to be awesome. No list can define our ability to do so. Only you can make that happen.

You know who you are.

Principal for a day!

My guest blogger today is Alecia, a sixth grade student at our school who entered a raffle drawing to win the prize of Principal for the Day…. and what a fantastic prize it turned out to be, not just for Alecia, but for me. :) Alecia has been a strong presence in our building today, observing classrooms, interacting with students, completing fun tasks like student birthday cards and helping me prepare for our Students Rebuild paper crane project for Japan, as well as serving as photographer for our 10-Picture Tour!

Here are Alecia’s photos, with descriptions of why she chose to showcase these areas of our school, as well as some reflections about what it’s like to be a principal! Thanks for a great day, Alecia!

1. Our main entrance - I picked this picture because this is where we come in and out of the school from.

2. Our library - I like this picture because this is where we do our research.

3. Our art room - I choose the art room because this is where we do our crafts.

4. Our multi-purpose room - The multi-purpose room is were we do multiple activities such as gym, music performances, and it turns into our cafeteria at lunch time.

5. Our wall of teachers - I choose the wall of teachers because it shows who works in our building.

6. Our front showcase - I choose the front showcase because it just shows an Easter/spring theme.

7. Our quilt - I like the quilt because it welcomes you to Bowmansville.

8. Our hallways -The hallways were chosen because they show student work!

9. Our computer lab - I picked the computer lab because it shows the students hard at work.

10. Our mural - Everyone in our school got to help make the mural by placing a tile on the project.

Alecia ~ what did you enjoy about your day as a principal? What did you learn? What advice do you have for anyone who wishes to become a principal?

I enjoyed being a principal. It is really fun just to go around and see what other kids are working on and just to be able to be in charge of the school is really cool! Some advice I have for people who want to be a principal is just to be understanding with children and have fun!

Sharing is contagious!

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user Funchye

Last year I spent some time throughout the school year snapping photos of student work that was displayed in the hallways and classrooms, creating slideshows using PhotoPeach, and posting “I Spy” tours of our student learning displays on our school websites to share with parents.

I Spy, March 5! on PhotoPeach

I admit that I have not been posting these slideshows regularly this year, and today I made a commitment to do so, because there is so much fantastic learning going on in our school! But then I considered why I didn’t feel as compelled to do this.

It’s not because what I see in the hallways or classrooms is any less enthralling or interesting than it’s been in the past … it’s because more teachers and students are sharing student work and learning themselves! It’s like we’ve all been infected with some sort of wonderful, crazy, addictive sharing disease that is spreading like wildfire throughout our school!

My teachers have grown so much in their willingness to engage students in different types of learning experiences throughout this year. Much of our increased ability to share student work can be attributed to the use of social media and the integration of new tools to enhance student engagement with the content.

Our primary students have created Voicethreads and teamed up with intermediate grade reading buddies to create digital stories with Little Bird Tales. They’re trying Voki, Skyping with virtual pen-pals (check out their visitor map!), and have really been dedicating time to writing on their blogs. We’re sharing our school events with descriptive slideshows.

Intermediate students have been broadening conversations with Today’s Meet, working with Xtranormal, garnering input for math data projects with Google forms, and creating Voicethreads. We’ve jumped into collaborating with Google Docs and students use Glogster to summarize their learning. They’re engaging in conversations with their families and visitors around the world! One of our fifth grade classes created a video tour of our school to share with their Oregon penpals, and some students even participated in our staff Sharing Showcase last week! I’ve seen some very eager Prezi creators, and enjoyed reading these Kidblog reading reflections. Our school “newspaper” has been moved online to help easily share our students’ writing and project work. Parents and teachers can more easily comment on what’s happening!

 

The benefits of sharing are endless. Parents have a wide open window into classroom happenings. Students are connecting with other teachers and students throughout our country and world. Students are active, engaged, and motivated learners in these experiences.  Teachers’ and student excitement is spreading…

Initially, I believe the teachers that felt comfortable risk-taking and trying new ideas with students were hesitant to share their joys about the process, for fear of “bragging” or looking they were trying to out-do their grade level colleagues. Similarly, I think teachers were timid about sharing the struggles they experienced throughout the change, worried that their frustrations might dissuade other teachers from taking risks themselves. We need to overcome this mindset. We need to encourage growth in ourselves and others.

Reading Shelley Wright‘s post this morning, I knew I immediately would share her words with my teachers, because her message to Improvise, Learn, Don’t Regret is one that I want my teachers, and students, to embrace. She has taken the time to document her journey into project-based learning and share that experience with all of us. We have gained insight, perspective, and appreciation for the process because she has done so. This doesn’t happen without honest transparency.

Thank you, Justin, for the challenge to share the wonderful things happening in our schools! We all need to spread the sharing bug… it’s an ailment worth enduring!

Three simple steps on a never-ending journey.

If it is one-of-those-days (weeks, months), and you are in need of inspiration, please watch Sarah Kay’s TED talk, If I should have a daughter.

Sarah is a spoken word poet and a gifted storyteller. She shares some very meaningful lessons with us through her talk, lessons that while simple in design, require commitment to achieve. She detailed three steps to embark on the journey of achieving life’s goals:

Step 1: “I can.”

Step 2: “I will.”

Step 3: Infuse the work you’re doing with the specific things that make you you, even when those things are always changing.

She challenged the audience to list three things they knew to be true, and explained that in leading this exercise with her Project V.O.I.C.E. students, participants realize that they often share items on the list; they have very very different items on the list; there are things listed that some participants have never before encountered; and there are list items that a participant thought they knew everything about before seeing the concept through another’s perspective. She stressed the importance of using experiences you have collected to help you dive into things you don’t know, and I was so moved by her sentiment, I try to walk through life with palms open, so when beautiful amazing things fall out of the sky, I’m ready to catch them.

Educators have the ability to help students realize they can. We possess the determination to help students act- they will. We owe it to our children to ensure they’re able to infuse their passions into life and learning experiences, because, as Sarah tells us, Step 3 never ends.

What do you know to be true? What do your students know to be true? Is your school a place where your students and teachers can discover, un-discover, and rediscover the things they know to be true and meaningful in their lives?
CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user iman Khalili

Crossing the finish line.

 

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user iman Khalili

It’s not whether you win or lose… it’s how you run the race.

Jonathan Martin provided us with a detailed summary of his reflections after viewing Race to Nowhere, a documentary film that highlights the lives of high school students, parents and families, and teachers and administrators, all in the context of a system that is broken and failing our children. As Jonathan stated, it is “emotionally manipulative,” and the first sentence of the About the Film description on its website indicates that it indeed features “the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids.”

I didn’t know what to expect from the film, and I actually wasn’t prepared to take notes, but about 20 minutes in, I knew that I needed to write a reflection on the film’s contents. I covered the fronts and backs of scrap pieces of paper I had in my purse with seemingly incoherent scribblings. (I had owned my iPhone for about 1 hour prior to attending the screening, so, unlike Jonathan, was not yet skilled at taking notes on my phone in the dark. :) The quotes below are my reflections as I remember them and may be paraphrased.

These are my take-aways:

On happiness:

  • Children are trying to balance lives that few adults would be comfortable balancing. Something that resounded with me was a student explaining how people always want to know from her, Aaand… “I’m a member of the student council.” And? “I have straight A’s.” And? “I play sports.” And? Why aren’t you doing any community service??!
  • We are basing students’ successes not on how happy they are, but rather on a systemic assumption that they need to get into a good college and make a lot of money, which will lead to happiness.
  • Why cant happiness be a metric used to determine the success of our schools? Why just reading and math scores? Focusing on academics alone does not respect the child.

On accountability:

  • We have a “tremendous preoccupation with performance.”
  • Our educational system is an inch deep and a mile wide. What is important is NOT “knowing a whole bunch of things.”
  • We’re always preparing kids for “what’s next.” Think about it: “In middle school, you will have to do X, so in sixth grade, we’re going to make you do X to prepare you.” “In fourth grade, your teachers will expect you to write in cursive, so in third grade, we’re going to learn cursive.”
  • Due to the pressures of No Child Left Behind, we teach students formulaically so they can pass a test, but if they encounter something unlike that which is on the test, they fall apart. The tremendous pressure to produce leaves out time for critical processing. Cheating has become “like another course.”
  • Kids want to know exactly what’s on the test and not go beyond it. We give them study guides! We base our teachings off of those guides!
  • Teachers feel like “yes men” doing what the district, state, or government wants, even if it’s not best for kids. One teacher cited the example, “like teaching them what a semicolon does.” She went on to explain the need for us to teach students critical thinking, problem solving, and how to work in groups. This passionate teacher explained that she wants for her students to be learners. She stressed that if you’re not teaching what you love, you can’t do this job. “I’m a mother to my students. I see them more than they see their families.” This teacher’s frustrations with the system and feelings of helplessness eventually caused her to resign.
  • The tutoring industry has exploded because we are treating all kids like they need to be in the top 2 percent academically. Children are nervous about upsetting and disappointing their teachers if they don’t perform. And that they may “lose recess” for incomplete work.

On homework:

  • “At what point did it become okay for school to dictate how a child will spend time outside of school?” It’s not about learning anymore.
  • There is no correlation between homework completion and academic achievement in elementary school. (This was my absolute favorite line of the movie.) In middle school, there is a slight correlation, but past 1 hour of homework, it lessens. Past 2 hrs of homework time in high school, the effect lessens. Reference made to Sara Bennett’s and Nancy Kalish’s work, The Case Against Homework.
  • We all need to educate ourselves about the effects of homework. Why do we insist upon assigning it? Teachers think it’s necessary to cover content. Parents expect it.

On passion-based learning:

  • Our kids have grown up in a “world of training wheels” and have been coached from a very young age. They don’t realize they can fall off the bike and pick themselves up.
  • Instead of taking 5 classes, think, here are 3 classes I’m really interested in taking. One student expressed his belief that college is going to be a place where I “start to learn.” What does that say for his high school experience?
  • “Smart” has so many different meanings. The system is ignoring a great group of kids that is talented artistically, visually-spatially, etc. “Absolutely no appreciation for that kind of talent, or thinking.”
  • What creates the opportunity to be innovative? What does it take to create a creative human being? Children need time, so we must provide that downtime. Play is children’s work. It’s a tool to figure out how the world works. They’re not able to figure out what they love to do or find their passions without that freedom.

I was surrounded by a very emotional audience at the screening I attended. The movie was shown in the high school auditorium of a neighboring school district, one whose name is synonymous with wealth and high academic achievement. We have often looked to this district for ideas about how to implement programs and structure schedules due to their documented successes. The parents in the audience were likely those of high school students, and it was clear, from only 30 minutes into the film, that they would start to reconsider the types of discussions they would have with their children about learning and achievement. I wonder how this movie’s message made them view their roles differently?

There was a member of the audience with whom I’ve interacted on several occasions in her role as consultant. She has spent hours with our administrative team, reviewing the RtII framework, discussing data at great lengths, and yet, her best intentions noted, not once did we mention a child by name, or discuss actual, meaningful learning. I wonder how this movie’s message made her view her role differently?

The president of my parent-teacher organization approached me about the film and asked if I thought it would be beneficial for her to view. I agreed it would be, and she is taking a group of our parents to see the film in a few weeks. I wonder how this movie’s message will cause them to view their roles differently?

One of my colleague principals had a chance to view the film, and I feel it’s important for us to share our thoughts with the rest of our administrative team. I wonder how this movie’s message will cause them to view their roles differently?

I’m actually overwhelmed composing this post, as I decipher my notes to try to articulate just exactly what I’m feeling about this film’s message. I agree with the conclusions shared at the end of the movie that we need to rethink how we “do schooling.” What do we want to invest in? What matters most? The quality of teaching is what matters most.

We have to start asking ourselves how films like this, articles we read, success stories we hear, problems we encounter, and convictions we hold cause us to think differently. And then we have to do something about it.

There is no easy fix to the flaws in the system, because the inherent problems are so complex. But there is so much that we are doing right in schools across the nation and beyond. What I’d love to do is create a Race to Nowhere-esque documentary that captures and celebrates the extraordinary learning that’s going on within and outside of our classrooms each day. (Many of us do this with our blogs. But is it enough?) We need to share our successes with a wider audience. We need to inspire each other and start to build a collective body of knowledge that can help lead us in the direction of a finish line worth crossing.

Don’t miss a learning opportunity.

Many times, the best opportunities for learning do not occur in classrooms. This is especially true for administrators, as we perhaps have fewer chances to interact with students in the classrooms than our teachers do.

Consider a student that is “sent to the office.” (That phrase makes me cringe a little, but I know it happens more often than I care to believe.) Each administrator has a preference for dealing with student behaviors and potential discipline scenarios. The policies and techniques will vary according to student ages, school district policies, and by administrator philosophies. My sincere hope is that each situation is handled with an element of care and respect for the child as an individual. No two children are the same. Why should any two conversations about behavior be the same? Consistency and fairness can be obtained without doling out blanket consequences.

The poem above resonated strongly with me. The students who are most often referred to my office are those that are craving positive relationships with the adults in their lives. It is unlikely that a consequence alone will instill in them a desire to change behavior. What will? They want to be heard. They want to be valued. They want you to understand. So you have to listen.

Chris Wejr reminds us in his post The Power of Positivity that the positive connections we make with students and families are crucial in helping to build relationships and a community of learners. Make time every day, every week, all year long, to build those relationships with your students. Don’t wait until students appear outside your office door. Go to them. The cafeteria. They playground. Their sporting events. Their classrooms. Their homes. Be a positive part of their lives. And if they have to visit your office? Make it a comfortable place to be. I’ve heard so many people question why my office isn’t a cold and sterile place where children fear to be sent. Really? Do I want to be known as the person children fear in our school? Absolutely not! For that reason, my office is equipped with a basketball hoop, putting green, tabletop football and ping-pong, and giant beanbag chairs surrounded by books to read. I want students to visit! I want to hear all about their days and what they love about school and what they would change and what they are doing this weekend and what their favorite movies are and what hilarious new jokes they heard on the bus.

Will you be that someone? The person who looks a child in the eye? Who helps him learn more about this tricky business that we call life? By engaging in thoughtful, caring conversation and collaborative problem-solving with students in need, students will learn to trust and believe in themselves as learners, and set out on the road to making better choices. They’ll know they have a supporter in you.

And you? I guarantee you will leave the conversation having learned a thing or two.