Be an artist.

In Linchpin, Seth Godin asks us to consider the task of emotional labor: doing important work, even when it isn’t easy. It’s the type of labor we often avoid, due to its difficulty and the fact that to some people, emotional labor is a gift given without reward. In reality, emotional labor perhaps yields the greatest benefits, to both the giver and the recipient of those efforts.

The act of giving someone a smile, of connecting to a human, of taking initiative, of being surprising, of being creative, of putting on a show- these are things that we do for free all our lives. And then we get to work and we expect to merely do what we’re told and get paid for it.

Godin’s message is to bring your gifts to work. Your initial reaction to this idea may be, “Why should I? I just want to leave work each day and go home and do things I enjoy and be around people I actually like.”

What gifts do you bring to your school? Clearly you seek to display your strongest leadership qualities on a daily basis, in the hopes of modeling and shaping learning for your staff and students. What art do you create on a daily basis, at work, that allows your organization to flourish?

If you believe that your role as administrator or teacher or parent does not fit the definition of “artist,” I ask you to consider the following:

  • Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.
  • Art is about intent and communication, not substances.
  • Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.
  • Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.
  • Art is the product of emotional labor. If it’s easy and risk-free, it’s unlikely that it’s art.

I didn’t want this to post to be filled with feel-good fluff and void of actual instances of how I know emotional labor is being expended each day in schools, and how this work benefits our kids. In our elementary school, there are artists creating at every turn.

  • My guidance counselor recently designed a “break the mid-winter-blahs” picnic lunch day for the entire school using her gifts of compassion and her awareness of our school climate.
  • For a few weeks of the year physical education teacher transforms our gymnasium into an amazing obstacle course, complete with hanging “vines,” hula-hoops, clever contraptions made of PVC-pipe, and opportunities for rolling, tumbling, running, laughing, and learning.
  • One of my kindergarten teacher’s many gifts is her unrivaled ability to break into song, dance, skit, funny character voice… basically whatever theatrics is necessary…to excite and energize her students and engage them in learning.
  • My 3/4 hallway has this amazing chemistry. You can feel it when you walk through the hall. It hits you in the face. I love their contagious energy!
  • An incredible group of teachers and staff imagined and implemented a now-annual Day of Service for our entire school community in honor of a teacher who lost her battle with breast cancer last year.
  • Grade 2 teachers designed a Parent Blogging Night, where they will introduce parents to the learning opportunities their children will be involved in using blogs and where parents will help their child write their first post!
  • Students offer to stay in from recess to assist a teacher. They offer to make posters and visit you at lunch time and give you their ice cream and deliver cupcakes to you when it’s their birthday.
  • Dedicated parents in our parent-teacher organization write grants for technology and run science exploration clubs for our young scientists. Another parent blogged with a third grade class on his recent business trip to Shanghai and visited us upon his return to share this experience with our students.

None of these given gifts are written as requisite activities in teachers’ job descriptions, nor in any of those instances do you see the words standardized testing, curriculum map, or homework. They clearly all involve love, care, and learning.

How will you be an artist today? How will your emotional labor and efforts change your organization? Take a risk. Your passion-driven efforts will not go unnoticed, and you will find that when you expend emotional labor, although sometimes exhausting, it will be deeply gratifying. What we often forget, as Godin reminds us, is “The act of the gift is in itself a reward.”

We consume. Do we produce?

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user John*Ell

The relationships between consumers and producers in life cycles and food webs is introduced in the elementary years. Children genuinely enjoy exploring the relationships among animals and other organisms in our world.

As I navigated through the websites Stumble Upon recommended for me this morning, I got to thinking: We’re really good at consuming. How are we doing with producing? Sharing?

We’re in the midst of planning an upcoming professional development day for elementary teachers, and they were surveyed to find out what tech integration topics they’d like to explore. One of the responses indicated “websites for use in the primary classroom.” I guess I understand where that response is coming from, but a few keyword searches in a short amount of time could result in a list of such websites. Consuming.

I’m meeting monthly with a group of elementary teachers who volunteer their time after school to explore ideas and tools that will help them become more adept learners, and hopefully bring that knowledge into their classrooms for use with students. We discuss the “shifts” in education- the importance of connected learning- the tools and applications that can be used for students to authentically demonstrate their learning- there’s honestly too much to explore in the short time we have together, but I do appreciate the time these teachers are spending stepping outside of their comfort zones and working to produce. Not only are they creating projects as we explore certain tools, but they’re producing new ways of thinking and transforming their mentalities about teaching and learning.

I often hear, “Well, they have to start somewhere,” in reference to teachers taking on new roles and trying new things in the classroom, but at what point do we apply a little more pressure? How long do we allow teachers to either a) ignore technology and the “shift” or b) use it in superficial ways that don’t necessarily add to student learning before we push them to step outside of their comfort zones? Do we have time to allow them to continue to consume without at least attempting to produce?

Administrators need to provide opportunities for their teachers to become producers of content and ideas. Why? Because our students are natural producers. They act, they sing, they dance, they draw, they make up jokes, they journal, they create websites, they problem solve through social interactions, they establish their own YouTube channels and comment on peers’ work… they produce. If we don’t foster that love of creation in our schools, it will diminish.

Dean Shareski says, “If you generally think of the Internet as a ‘place to look up stuff’ you’re missing the best part.” Agreed. How will you help your teachers become producers and share their ideas? How will you help design learning opportunities for your students to do the same?

Without producers, the consumers will eventually dwindle away, won’t they?

Good teaching is everywhere.

 

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user Julie K in Taiwan

I recently had a date with the dentist, thanks, in no small part, to the daily office deliveries of student birthday cupcakes and cookies and cake. (We have yet to become one of those schools that bans birthday treats. And I’m perfectly okay with that.)

As I reclined in the not-at-all-comfortable chair and tried to think of anything other than my cavity being filled, I realized my dental hygienist was working with a student hygienist. I learned she was only in her fifth day of working with the practice.

I know some people get turned off when a student/junior/in-training practitioner is tasked with serving them, be it at the doctor’s office, a law firm, a restaurant, an insurance agency, or the mechanic. They are paying good money for the service. Why should they have to do business with someone who is not as highly qualified as the professional they normally deal with?

Not me. I think it’s fascinating. At the dentist’s office, I listened carefully to the interactions between the hygienist, Lynn (weird coincidence, I know) and her student. It was amazing. What I realized, in a very short amount of time, is that Lynn is a fantastic teacher.

She possessed all of the qualities I would want my teachers to have. Her care and concern for the patient was evident. She asked me repeatedly if I was okay, comfortable, and she did so in a soothing voice. I knew she wanted me to have a good experience. In these interactions with me, Lynn was modeling for her student what good “chairside” manner looks like.

The conversations between the two professionals was an even greater testament to her skill as a teacher. She asked her student questions. She showed her how she used certain tools and techniques she used to prepare medications, ready things for the doctor, etc. At one point, Lynn elaborated as to why she performed a certain way, why she preferred one technique over another. She provided a rationale and a purpose for learning. The student asked questions freely. She described what new things she was learning in her coursework and Lynn reflected upon those insights, comparing them to how she was taught. And, like all great teachers do, she relinquished control. The student performed a variety of tasks at my visit, all of which were met with specific, constructive feedback and praise. “I like the way you…” “You really do a fine job with…” I heard the words “thank you” from both parties no fewer than 20 times.

I know this post is lacking in its technical description of what exactly the two hygienists were discussing because, let’s face it, I had no idea what they were talking about, but that didn’t matter. They could have been speaking a foreign language and I would still have been able to recognize that the relationship between these two professionals was vital for the professional development of both the student and the teacher. The pain in my jaw seemed to diminish with each passing second, as I focused instead on what an amazing act of teaching I had the chance to witness. Shouldn’t all of our student teachers have this type of practical experience as they’re entering the field? How can we as administrators help to facilitate this? I am very eager to invite student teachers into our building. I encourage my staff to serve as their hosts and mentors and to make the most of their experiences together, and in 99% of cases, both parties involved learn an extraordinary amount from one another- all to the benefit of our students!

The people who design teacher evaluation systems, the educators I encounter in my daily work as a principal and those in my virtual network all want to know, “What is good teaching?” It’s definitely difficult to put into words. To make the definition of what it means to be a good teacher fit into some kind of mold with rubrics and exemplars and dollar amounts attached. I do know this: you know it when you see it. It’s magical and inspiring, and our job as administrators is to find it, hone it, and help everyone strive to attain it. Do you agree?

For more thoughts on what makes a teacher great, check out these posts from my colleagues.

Cross-posted on Connected Principals

Expected freedoms.

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user turbojoe

The title of Pernille Ripp’s recent blog post, Are we forcing students to be noncompliant?, peaked my interest. She asked us to consider the expectations we set forth in our classrooms and contemplate those times when students fail to meet our expectations, thus rendering their behaviors noncompliant. Through the recognition that every student has individual needs and requires specific supports in order to be successful, she posed the question, “Does every rule need to apply to every student?”

After sharing Pernille’s post on Twitter, I received this thoughtful tidbit from Alan Feirer:

I’ve written previously about my experiences in trying to provide my teachers with increased autonomy in their professional development and how they plan for student learning experiences. The results have been quite encouraging thus far. I am witnessing teachers taking risks, collaborating on new initiatives, reflecting upon their practices, and creating improved, more individualized learning opportunities for our children.

Every administrator and teacher recognizes the importance of establishing classroom expectations and guidelines to help streamline the effectiveness of learning operations within the classroom. Consider the outcomes if students, particularly those in elementary school, were given complete freedom to act throughout the school day….no procedures for movements within the class and around the building, for organizing materials and work spaces, for interacting with peers and adults…it might get a little nuts.

Similarly, think about if the only expectation we put in place for our teachers was to show up each day and “teach.” Teachers choose the content. They choose the delivery. They choose how (or if ) to assess. They choose which students to teach. Teachers decide how (or if) they prefer to be supervised and how their effectiveness is evaluated. It might get a little nuts.

So, we have guiding principles in place to help our teachers plan meaningful learning experiences for our children. Standards, curriculum guides, common materials and assessments… for many of us, “too much of a good thing” comes to mind knowing the extent to which some school boards and government organizations have put policies and procedures in place to dictate teaching and learning practices, but as administrators we have the opportunity to work within these structures and provide our teachers with as much freedom as possible in designing learning experiences for kids. (We could also just declare, “Our hands are tied, nothing we can do,” in our best disgruntled-administrator voice, but I don’t really recommend that.)

George Couros’s post “You don’t need to be brilliant to be wise” referenced Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk, The real crisis? We stopped being wise.” which George related to the importance of recognizing the human element of our work with teachers and placing our trust in them to do the right thing rather than conform to a multitude of rigid guidelines. Another of Schwartz’s talks is very relevant to my thoughts on teacher autonomy.

Schwartz says, “The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.”  Schwartz goes on to warn, however, that too many choices can ultimately lead to increased anxiety due to heightened expectations, yielding dissatisfaction with results, even when the results are good. He concludes that some choice is better than none, but “more choice is not always better” and relating our life to that of a fish: “You need a fishbowl. If you shatter the fishbowl so everything is possible, you don’t have freedom- you have paralysis.”

We need to provide our teachers and students with a fishbowl – a place where it’s safe to take creative risks and where guidelines and supports are in place to help aid learning. Within this fishbowl we need to infuse freedoms. Could you provide teachers (students) with the freedom over how to spend their time? With curriculum and planning? Over their own learning? Could you recognize that every teacher (student) deserves differentiated, passion-driven professional development (learning) opportunities?

Working with teachers to identify and strengthen their areas of need is one of my integral roles as principal, but these improvement areas rarely come to light due to a matter of compliance, or lack thereof. Teachers generally want to do their very best for students. On the occasion we do meet teacher resistance when we ask them to become involved in improvement efforts or to cooperate with new initiatives, it is often because a) we didn’t do an adequate job of explaining the need for improvement b) we didn’t do an adequate job helping the teacher see the relevance of the initiative and its impact on student learning c) we didn’t provide enough supports for teachers in this area and/or d) we are expecting all teachers to abide by the same guidelines, just because, when in reality they deserve to be treated as the individual professionals that they are.

So, yes, there is a certain level of compliance that is expected from a teacher (and principal), in that we have agreed to serve in this amazingly rewarding educational capacity, and with this profession in particular comes great responsibility. Legally, to protect us all, there are guidelines that must be followed. But if a teacher is truly noncompliant in terms of failing to work with administrators and colleagues in order to improve practice, we need to get to the root cause of the issue. (Is it them? Or is it us?) Student learning will be impacted when teacher effectiveness and collegial relations are strained, and there is rarely a barrier insurmountable in order to make ourselves the best we can be for our students.

Be there.

IMAG0319

Three years ago when I first started as principal in my building, I told my teachers they should expect to see me on a daily basis, even if it was just to pop my head in the classroom and say a quick hello. As every administrator knows, this is easier said than done, especially on days when central office demands have you running across town to three meetings at two different buildings. I think my first year I did a fairly good job of “showing my face” around the building. Teachers no longer stopped instruction when I walked in the room to find out if I needed something. Students stopped being curious as to why I was there. They knew it was because I wanted to see my little learners in action and get to know everyone in my new school.

Last year we embraced the ideals of the Fish! philosophy in our school, one of which is Be There. The premise behind “be there” is fairly broad in that not only do you need to be physically available for your staff and your colleagues, but you have to be emotionally available for them as well. Being present means you make yourself available to your constituents, listen actively, and continuously work to strengthen relationships.

The teacher supervision model with which we engage consists of electronic walk-through formats as well as a formal observation protocol. I was finding that I was falling short of completing my desired number of documented walk-throughs each week, falling victim to the perils of management and not allowing the joys of leadership to drive my actions each day.

A few weeks ago I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to experience an entire school day in the life of a first grader?” I glanced at my calendar, noticed, despite being few and far between, there were some days without any scheduled meetings or commitments. Right then and there, I blocked off days for every grade level and specialist class in my building.

I drafted a document called It’s a Date! and emailed my staff:

Question:
What’s the best part about being a principal?

Answer:
Watching all of our children learn!

I have set aside days in my calendar to spend immersed in a grade level/class for the day. I am really excited about this! I will be in the classrooms from students’ arrival through the end of the day, planning to spend time in the rooms during academic times and will visit specials with your classes. I am happy to sit and observe, but reeeeally what I would love to do is join in the fun. Please put me to work! During your PLC meeting closer to your visit date, discuss how you will include me in your class activities. Need someone to facilitate a small group? Want to team up to teach a topic? Would you like to have someone work 1:1 with a student? Should I bring in some tech? These are all ways I’d be happy to help. Decide whose classrooms I will visit at what times of the day. If there is work/planning I need to complete before that day, kindly let me know a day or two in advance. 🙂

I began with first grade. What a wonderful day! In the morning I spent time working with small groups of students with reading concepts and making words activities using the Smartboard, and in the afternoon, three of the teachers enlisted my help teaching a lesson about extinction, where we read Dinosaurs! and the students interacted with classification and vocabulary on a Smartboard activity. I went to art class and music class and, although I often dine with students, joined them in the cafeteria. It was an exhilarating and exhausting day!

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This past Friday was Third Grade Day. I didn’t have as many teaching responsibilities this time, so I was really able to sit back and observe the children and all of the wonderful things they were learning. (And take a lot of photos and shoot some video!) Highlights: collaborating on critiquing persuasive writing blog posts with a class in another district using Flockdraw… experimenting with solids, liquids, and gases (using root beer floats! and hot chocolate with whipped cream and peppermint sticks and marshmallows!)… reading poetry with small groups of students….getting a class set up on Kidblog for the first time and helping them compose their first entries…glazing the clay bowls I threw on the potting wheel last spring while the third graders glazed their autumn leaf pottery….eating scrumptious 🙂 macaroni and cheese with the children and cracking up at their absurd jokes…observing “challenge day” in math class, where students are free to choose which activities and challenge problems they’d like to complete, either individually or in teams… working 1:1 with a young man who reeeally wanted to learn algebra, so, we worked together on some simple equations, and then I watched him teach another student 🙂 …. observing students use the Activotes to interact with graphing problems on the Promethean board… loving the feeling of walking past my office door, closed, while the sign outside that indicates where I am the building reads, “Visiting Classrooms.”

3rd Grade Day on PhotoPeach

My colleague David Truss has coined these days in the life of an administrator “No Office Days.” As I recently drafted this post and planned to share about my grade level days, I was so excited to see David’s inspiring post and read about his day of learning with students. Be sure to read about his experiences in his latest post!

We have to be there for our students and staff. We can’t do that from behind a closed office door, or even an open office door. I will freely admit what doesn’t get scheduled, doesn’t get done. Be sure to block out times on your calendar for walk-throughs or more time-intensive observation experiences. The perspective you will gain as a learner and administrator is invaluable. Watching your students’ faces light up as they experience an “aha” moment, seeing your teachers work so hard to make classroom experiences meaningful for students, and knowing your presence is positively impacting the lives of your students and teachers awakens the realization that being a school principal is the greatest!

Cross posted on Connected Principals

Inspiration delivers.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Minneapolis Institute of Arts

My vision for how staff development should look in my school has undergone a transformation over the past year. In my first year as a principal I recall the dread of conducting the marathon faculty meeting on opening day, droning on and on about everything from recess line-up procedures to my expectations for lesson plan submissions. In Year 2, most of our professional development days were dictated by district initiatives, and the few “building days” planned by principals were spent on data analysis. We looked at a lot of data. No shortage of graphs in those meetings.

We covered a lot of topics, but there certainly wasn’t a lot of learning going on.

In October, Chris Wejr described his plan for covering his teachers’ classes to allow for them to engage in collaborative opportunities, the focus of which would be self-directed and hopefully involve an elements of creative thinking and innovation:

This would benefit me as I would get to spend more time with students, it would benefit the teachers who take me up on the offer as they would be motivated to take a risk and try something innovative, and most importantly, it would benefit the students as the teacher would deliver something to our school that would impact student learning.  The extra prep period would be their “FedEx Prep.”

Chris was inspired by Daniel Pink’s Drive, a book that delves into the fascinating world of human motivation and how the ways businesses and schools currently motivate their employees (and students) is a far cry from the way science says they should.

I finally finished reading Drive a few weeks ago and knew I wanted to explore the idea of helping my teachers be more autonomous in their learning. I wanted to ensure our organization was striving to reach mastery (but never attaining, of course, since mastery is an asymptote) and develop a strong sense of purpose for our actions.

I knew I could accomplish this without having my teachers read Drive, but I certainly brought the book to school and shared it with those who were interested. To start, I asked my teachers to view three short videos: the RSA Animate version of Pink’s Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us talk; Two questions that can change your life; and What’s your sentence? By taking just 10-15 minutes to view these videos, I feel most of my teachers came prepared to start the day understanding the fundamental ideas behind why we were taking our professional development in this direction. Teachers were asked to consider a “sentence” that exemplifies their role in our school/their life, and when they were comfortable doing so, post on the Wallwisher I created.

I summarized Pink’s key points regarding autonomy, mastery, and purpose and outlined the expectations for the day on our wiki. An excerpt:

So today, your task is to be self-directed in your learning. Be productive. Live your sentence. Ask, am I better today than yesterday?  Seek mastery in your role. Remember our ultimate purpose. The only rule? You must deliver. A product…a project…ideas…action.

Pink calls providing this autonomous time for innovation a Fed Ex Day- employees choose what to work on, with whom, and however they’d like. The expectation is that “they must deliver something: a new idea, a better internal process, a refined lesson plan – the next day.”

As you work today, consider the following:

  • Task – Choose tasks that will benefit and impact student learning. Think differently!
  • Technique – Design your activities and project work in your own way, so long as the end result is a benefit to students.
  • Team – Work with anyone you want to work with today- you do not need to work with your grade level teams. Consult with the many knowledgeable people in our school! Individuals that choose not to collaborate will still be responsible for “delivering.” Consider the importance of the collaborative efforts!
  • Time – Use your time as you see fit. You’re free to head home at 11 AM. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Our day began at 8 AM. We met briefly in the library for a 5-minute, “go and have fun today!” speech from me. That was it. I saw a lot of smiles. I saw an almost-equal amount of incredulous looks. (She’s lost her mind, does she think we’re actually going to work today?!) I told the team I’d be camped out in the library if anyone needed me or wanted to collaborate with me.

So… what resulted? First, I have to share our sentences. They are really beautiful. What I wonder when I read them is how I can urge more of my teachers to be transparent- to not choose to post a sticky under “Anonymous” when they have such meaningful work to contribute?

Watching my teachers work together on our “Fed-Ex” Day actually made me a little giddy. I seriously may have had a smile plastered on my face all morning long. I did a lot of listening. The conversations were encouraging. I relished in the fact that many of my teachers were leaving the “comfort” of their grade level hallways and teaming up with other teachers, including our specialists. To say I was impressed with how my teachers embraced this first foray into autonomous PD would not be fair. They blew me away. And it’s not that they were creating such innovative projects that were going to revolutionize the face of education as we know it… it’s that they were opening their minds to new ideas, they were enjoying their work, they were considering alternatives to current practices, and they were definitely stepping outside of their comfort zones.

Our ESL and special needs teachers teamed up and located a fantastic resource and planned for our students to engage with e-Books in their learning. A team of intermediate teachers considered how to develop students’ skills for error analysis in their work. Primary teachers gathered around the Smartboard, some of whom do not ever use the tool, to consider its use with their students. They created a team Diigo group to share resources. Two second grade teachers planned for how they would involve students in reader’s theater, and came to me to discuss their options for recording and posting their performances. Third grade teachers wanted to explore how to better immerse students in literature and enlisted the support of our media specialist. Our music and art teachers seriously debated why in the world we give grades in the specialty areas. Both teachers planned on bringing Fed-Ex type days to their classrooms. The Mid-Winter-Pick-Me-Up-Picnic was born. Primary teachers designed a way to incorporate more student-choice into their project work. One of my tech-savvy teachers bounced from group to group, leading the way with various initiatives. A revelation from a teacher who was working on a document to share with third grade colleagues: “Wait. Why am I using Word for this? I should be using Google docs!” Me: “Uh, yeah!”

Thoughts from the teachers? The day was not without a limited number of grumblings, however, on the delivery form they were asked to submit to me following their work day, I was so pleased to read positive feedback. One of the questions asked, Did they enjoy the format of the day?

  • Yes, because it gave me a chance to be creative in my own way.  If I have had any success in my teaching career, it is because of a format or structure like today, being able to create on my own, curriculum, selecting activities that best meets the every changing needs of our students, with administrative support but without administrative restrictions.
  • I was extremely annoyed at first when I heard the plan, because I had a lot of s$*t that needed to get done, but I have found the day to be extremely exhilarating and rewarding. 🙂
  • Yes we did! We got a lot accomplished and feel that what we did will have an immediate benefit to our students! Thanks for the opportunity.
  • LOVED IT! More please 🙂

And allow me to share the reflections of my most-excellent of guidance counselors, who will not at all be alarmed that I am posting her thoughts on my blog… I think her words perfectly depict her personal journey to planning a new community-building activity for our school, an idea she’d been thinking a lot about but, until Wednesday, had not brought to fruition. I introduced our Fed Ex day on Monday, which is when her wheels started spinning…

“Monday/Tuesday:  Hated it  (too open-ended.  daunting.  outside of my comfort zone.  getting in the way of getting my “real” [boring & mundane] work done.  scary.)

then

Tuesday/Wednesday:  Loved it (went crazy.  found and discarded ideas. refined them.  enjoyed bouncing them off a bunch of people.  liked having people show me what might not work and what would work better.  especially enjoyed watching people go from “What a ridiculous idea” to “Hey … that might actually be fun.”)

You and Daniel are very wise.”

I know that I will be mandated by my central admin to include specific activities on future professional development days, but I also know that a) I will try to transform the day so that I meet district initiatives while granting autonomy to my teachers and b) every chance I get, we’re going to have another day like we did on Wednesday. I enjoyed the feedback on Chris’s post and would love the same about our day’s structure and how I can improve this idea in the future.

I am very appreciative of Chris and all of the innovative principals who’ve inspired me in this area over the past year, and of course to Dan Pink for sharing his thoughts with us all, and making me want to be better and do things differently tomorrow than I did today.

Playing school or living learning?

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I was honored to contribute to Amy Sandvold’s Passion-Driven Leader blog. Please visit her blog to be inspired as more educational leaders share their passions! This is the post I shared…

“Playing school” was one of my favorite pastimes when I was a child. My two younger brothers influenced my playtime habits (think He-Man, Transformers, and GI Joe adventures), but I repeatedly subjected them to assuming the role of “student,” sitting attentively in the makeshift classroom in our playroom. My mother would bring home used basal readers or textbooks if she was yard sale browsing. Whenever my teacher was purging supplies, I’d grab stacks of old workbooks and handwriting paper. Our stuffed animals and dolls joined my brothers as pupils. I’d stand in front of a giant chalkboard and review math facts and spelling words. I made worksheets, they’d complete them, and then I’d grade them. I rewarded their efforts with star stickers. We went out for recess. I loved playing school!

Out of curiosity I Googled “playing school” and came across this Wikihow article detailing 17 how-to steps for playing school.  It made me laugh. And simultaneously sad. Here are a few high/lowlights:

  • The sheer ridiculousness of Step 9: Make a misbehaving list. “If the students misbehave, they’ll have their name added to the list, which will result in loss of privileges.” The dreaded list… also troubling is the “I’m going to put your name on the board and put checkmarks next to it with each infraction” visual.
  • And Step 17, that I’m sure this teacher and this principal would really appreciate: Have a reward system. “If your students do good deeds, add a gold star to a chart, or make a special mark by their name and they can get a special treat! And, reward them if they do good with a substitute. And don’t reward them if they are bad.” Note to new teachers everywhere: equip your classroom with gold stars, charts, the “list” (see above), and treats, and you’ll be just fine.
  • Fundamental materials described in Step 6: Get a teacher’s notebook. “You’ll use this for keeping attendance, the timetables, behavior codes and grades. And, you should probably draw out the plans for that day. If you are teaching P.E., track the students’ progress.” So many key essentials in one notebook? I enjoy how the author mentions you should probably draw out plans for the day. Nice to see mention of P.E., though.

The most valuable part of this article is found in the “Tips” section below the step-by-step guide:
“Make sure that the kids have fun. Make it enjoyable for them. Don’t bore them!” Point well taken!

I don’t pretend for a second that the Wikihow entry meant to serve as a resource grounded in educational best practice, or even a resource that anyone is ever meant to gaze their eyes upon, ever, but it does raise some interesting points about the perceptions of what teachers and students do in schools and the purpose that education, and educators, serve.

Unfortunately, playing school isn’t good enough when it becomes our life work. Yet many educators do just that. They go through the motions. Teaching is a job to them. The monotony of the same lessons, schedules, and curriculum, year after year, can gradually cause the passionate spark once held by a teacher or administrator to fizzle. With good intentions, these educators continue with business as usual, because frankly, it is comfortable, and it has worked (sort of) thus far. Adding to the stress of the daily lives of teachers and administrators are the countless legislative mandates, conflicts with stakeholders, dwindling budgets, and attempts to bring change to institutions that are among the hardest to change. The passion that may have once been there, in the early days and years of teaching, fades alarmingly fast.

What is passion? Many things. An outburst of strong emotion or feeling. A strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything. What can we do to avoid playing school in our daily work with students? How do we remain passionate educators?

Some teachers are passionate about their content areas. They have absolute enthusiasm for chemistry and everything it represents and means to our world. They genuinely want students to develop a passion for chemistry akin to the passion they currently possess. I think of Dan Meyer who clearly is passionate about mathematics, but he goes a huge step above and beyond respect for the content. He works tirelessly to ensure his students (and the rest of us) are truly engaged in thinking about mathematics. Without that passion – the passion to craft learning experiences that help his students own their learning, his affinity for mathematics is just that- a content area he thinks is kind of cool.

Some educators are passionate about the shift. They develop PLNs, inspire each other through blog posts, presentations at conferences, and #edchats. They seek to infuse technologies meaningfully into student learning experiences, not for the sake of the tool, but for the sake of learning. They and their students are driven by the desire to collaborate, create, and think critically. Teachers, principals and superintendents are becoming transparent learners as if to say, “We love what we do. We’re so excited about what the future brings! And we want to share that with you!”

Some educators are passionate about connecting their students with the world. They are helping their students reflect on their learning through blogs, involving them in projects that help make the world a better place, and are developing partnerships with schools that are separated by thousands of miles.

No matter which direction the passionate educator takes, one thing is certain. A passionate educator cares about kids. A passionate educator LIKES kids. Every decision made, every action taken, every word spoken, is done so with their best interests in mind. We love working with kids. They touch our hearts with their hilarious anecdotes, determination, imagination, smiles, and inventive spellings. They’re the reason we come to work each day. And if students are not the reasons why you vie for that parking spot nearest to the door each morning, then I might suggest that you are playing school – you are not living learning– and you need to reevaluate your place in our educational system and children’s lives.

Early in my life I knew I wanted to be a teacher. Shortly into my career I was inspired by my fantastic administrators to follow that path. There are days that absolutely drain me, and make me wonder why it is I continue to do what I do.

Then I see two kindergarten students walking hand-in-hand to return books to the library.
And a first grader asks to read me a story. We sit on the carpet and she reads beautifully.
A sixth grader offers a heartfelt apology to me.
A teacher leaves a handwritten note on my desk telling me how much she appreciates my support.
A parent cries in my office about a family situation and asks for our help supporting her child.
I watch a teacher skillfully lead a small group of students in a discussion about the theme of a story and its impact on their lives.
An entire fifth grade class offers to help our custodian put away chairs after an assembly.

Then I realize, I no longer play school.
I live it.

What does it look like?

children_learning

What does it look like?

Administrators visit classrooms. They may focus on “look fors” while visiting and consider “ask abouts” in their discussions with teachers. After reading Danielle’s Thoughts on Connectivism and Where We Really Are, and her struggles with finding ways to incorporate connected learning opportunities in her school where perhaps the administration and community has not yet embraced these ideals, I appreciated her list of “these-are-the-things-I-can-do”s. Because that’s what we’re asking for, right? For teachers to try to do things just a little bit differently? To consider the possibilities? To take risks and have an open mind?

After reading Danielle’s thoughts, Lisa Christen asked me to consider what connected, constructivist learning may look like in the elementary classroom. I told her that sounded like some fine material for a blog post. So here we go.

Opportunities for student collaboration – This is easy. Children are social creatures. Do they inherently know how to collaborate effectively to problem solve? No. So we need to model that for them and help them acquire skills for doing so. There are many ways to infuse technology into this practice, but the tools won’t ensure students are collaborating. Primary students can handle this. Example. Last week I observed a first grade lesson where students had just finished reading a picture book about the life of George Washington Carver. Their next learning task? Work in teams to invent something new with the “peanut” as the key ingredient. You get the same tools Carver had available to him. Brainstorm your ideas, draw your process, write your steps, present to the class. Think like scientists. The ensuing thoughts were not only hilarious, they were creative and sparked children’s interest in the process of invention. Peanut crayon? Genius. Peanut clay? I’d buy it. Students took on different roles: team leaders emerged, some jumped right into sketching their designs, others teamed up to describe their steps. Was there a test following this activity? Nope. Was there even a rubric? Nah. Did they learn anything? They clearly did. I watched them do it.

Outside of the classroom, there are so many opportunities for connected learning in which we need our children to take part. Skype with an author or a pen-pal class. Create and maintain a system for housing student blogs. The possibilities with writing, commenting, reflecting, and passionate learning are endless. Begin the process of having students develop portfolios of their work. What an amazing opportunities for them to grow and reflect as learners. Create a Twitter account for your class and use it to connect with other classes, schools, and parents.

Learning is connected – So many standards, so little time. Why we teach subjects in isolation in elementary school is truly mind-blowing to me. Here we are, in a school where a student is likely to spend his entire day with one-three teachers who know him really well. I believe we should be rewriting elementary curriculum to address basic skills in a way that is truly integrated across disciplines. Imagine the connections students could make if they spent two weeks immersed in Colonial Life. From the second they walked through the door, they were transported to a time of the early Americas where every problem they solved, piece of writing they composed, and book they read reflected essential learning strands grounded in that theme. They’d be living their learning.

Stay true to constructivist theory – What I want to emphasize here is that constructivism is a learning theory, not a method of teaching.  Constructivism suggests that children (aka people) learn by constructing knowledge out of their experiences. Students need to construct knowledge by connecting new material to the knowledge they already possess. (Or think they do.) Let’s also ask our children to “deconstruct” their knowledge. Question everything. Prove it to be so. Evaluate the “right answers.” Find the resources to do so. In an elementary classroom, this can be achieved with carefully thought-out processes for delivering content. Consider a math lesson where the objective for students is to learn how to add fractions with unlike denominators. In most instances, the teacher will demonstrate how to do this, explain the steps, review key vocabulary terms, then ask the children to practice a few problems, then do some for homework. Snooze. The child in that scenario is a passive, not active, participant in the learning process. Instead, present a story problem with fractions with unlike denominators as the key ingredients. Ask students to solve the problem. Give them manipulatives, access to resources, and each other to solve the problem. Don’t look for the right answer- look for the process, and for students to be able to explain to one another how they arrived at the “solution.” Bring the class together to evaluate the methods and determine a course of action for solving similar problems. Allow them to argue and make mistakes. Guide them along the way.

Student choice– In the elementary classroom, particularly in the primary grades, we are pretty skilled with providing differentiated learning opportunities for students based on their academic needs. Where we sometimes miss the boat is providing those same small group or individual, passion-driven learning experiences for students, or designing our lessons to allow for more student choice. How can this be accomplished when there is so much curriculum to “cover” and so many standards to address? We need to shift our energies from thinking that every student needs to master every standard, every year. It’s just unrealistic, and frankly, inappropriate. We need to start looking at the big picture. I believe we need to help our children learn how to read and comprehend what they read. From there, they will work wonders. Why not lay out for students the content topics to be explored in social studies for the year, and ask them to choose where they’d like to first start exploring? Or, within a science unit on ecosystems, give students the freedom to choose through which ecosystem they’ll show mastery of the big ideas? And allow them to choose the method in which they’ll demonstrate their learning. Maybe every once and awhile we need to just stop with the routine and give kids what they really want. They’ll never be more engaged.

Opportunities to connect with teachers outside of school – Here I’d like to see a focus on communication with the student and the family outside of school. One thing that has been really powerful for us this year is the development of our teacher webpages. While students are not always contributing content to the pages, the teacher is posting curricular topics, links to relevant material, examples of student work, photos, etc. to share with parents. The parent has access to our classroom experiences 24/7. We are fortunate in that parents are very involved in our school, but we need to do a better job engaging, rather than simply involving, parents in the learning process.

I met with a teacher today who truly wants to transform her practice and student learning. But she is at a loss. She doesn’t know how to balance the enormity of the standards and curricular demands with her passion for bringing individualized, engaging learning experiences to every one of her students. After combating a moment of helplessness where I thought, “How can I possibly tell her she can do this?”, we cracked open the curriculum and decided which of the listed standards were just unnecessary. We talked about the big ideas and ways she could start incorporating project-based, student-centered learning experiences into the content areas. We’ll support her. She’ll make mistakes, and I’ll be okay with that. She is so driven, so student-centered, that her students will learn more this year than ever before.

I’m confident about that, and I know that every time I visit her room and watch her children learn, I’ll know that’s what it looks like.

The power of positivity.

Positive-Thinking

In the face of adversity, we make choices. We decide how and to what extent we will involve ourselves in tackling conflicts. There are organizational conflicts and personnel conflicts. Even personal ones. We can’t control how others will act. We can only control how we will respond to crises, changes, and situations.

There is nothing more disheartening to me than encountering “professionals” that let negativity dictate their interactions with students, colleagues, and parents. I am not immune to the fact that the demands placed on teachers are limitless. Administrators find themselves equally as burdened by mandates, changing directives, disgruntled parents and staff, finicky students, and the daily grind of what is the life of an administrator. Those of us that enjoy our work tend to thrive on these challenges; we enjoy brainstorming solutions and problem solving in order to improve our schools and learning experiences for students.

Enter the power of positivity. As administrators, we cannot expect our staff members to exude positivity without demonstrating this quality through our leadership. Kim Cameron of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship, the author of Positive Leadership, is a useful resource for this topic. While some of our schools focus on maintaining daily operations and remaining status quo (or are frankly just in survival mode), others are interested in taking learning to the next level for the entire organization. What formerly was good enough just isn’t good enough anymore. Cameron refers to this as positive deviancy, going beyond the norm in a positive direction, which will cause organizations to flourish, not just exist.

Consider this graphic that details how organizational strategies can be based on the positive:

PositiveStrategies-1yso61o

Focusing on the positives in these four domains: climate, meaning, communication, and relationships, will enable leaders to take the next step in supporting a flourishing organization. (Notice what is at the heart of all of these domains: people. We’re truly in the people business.)

It easier to creative a positive learning culture in a school experiencing success. The difficulties lie in times of adversity. When budgets are cut. When the pressure is on to perform. When children’s home lives aren’t ideal. When there is conflict among staff. When the administrative team isn’t supportive. When there aren’t enough resources.

We talk of reform and of change. So many in my PLN and school organization are dedicated to improving education for their students and children, yet each day we encounter others in our communities who continue to resist and thus dampen our efforts. We cannot stand for this negativity. We cannot tolerate excuses.

Instead, we must lead positively and support our colleagues along the way. What are some ways you’ve remained positive in your leadership efforts? How do you promote positivity in your organization? I’ve found these simple strategies to be successful:

  • Smile. Smile at people when you greet them. Smile when they say something amazing. Smile when they say something that exasperates you. If you give the impression that you are frustrated, upset, worried, etc., the people with whom you’re interacting will know it.
  • Keep a folder called “The Good.” I have two. One is in my desk drawer and it’s where I file the thank you cards, children’s artwork, letters from parents, note from staff…and the other is in my Outlook inbox where I store much of the same. At those times when I say to myself, “How can I keep up with the demands of this gig? Why do I do this?” I turn to the folders. And I read. And I smile. And I remember very clearly why I do this.
  • Don’t act unless it’s in the best interest of the children. Don’t speak it, say it, do it, unless it benefits kids. Don’t waste energy on things that don’t. Being negative takes more energy than it’s worth. Did you know that?
  • Address the negative. Just like teachers use planned ignoring rather skillfully in their classrooms with students, there are some instances of negativity within an organization that are best ignored. Others are not. When the negativity seeps into the everyday actions of teachers, thus impacting life for students, it is no longer okay. Work with people. Help them see how their negative influences are detrimental to learning and are holding back the organization from greater success.
  • Celebrate. Celebrate everything, particularly the small successes. Help everyone in your organization see the value in what they do. Create a culture where it’s okay to brag. Share! Don’t limit your celebrations to within your school walls- be sure everyone in your community knows how excited you are about your work with kids!

“If you will call your troubles experiences, and remember that every experience develops some latent force within you, you will grow vigorous and happy, however adverse your circumstances may seem to be.” -John Heywood

Go team!

teamwork

The title of our staff’s latest shared Google presentation was, “Go Team Brecknock!” I’m not sure what compelled me to name it that, but I think it’s because the first hour of our morning (before we provided teachers with sweet freedom to collaborate with their grade level peers for the remainder of the day), our discussions focused on the “state of our school,” an overall look at some data trends, where we are, where we need to go, and how we’re going to get there. We are a team, working toward the collective goal of improving learning experiences for all children.

No single person can move a school, therefore team dynamics become critical. We modeled our own professional learning community work after DuFour’s model. One of the “big ideas” of Dufour’s PLC is A Culture of Collaboration:

Educators who are building a professional learning community recognize that they must work together to achieve their collective purpose of learning for all. Therefore, they create structures to promote a collaborative culture…. For teachers to participate in such a powerful process, the school must ensure that everyone belongs to a team that focuses on student learning. Each team must have time to meet during the workday and throughout the school year. Teams must focus their efforts on crucial questions related to learning and generate products that reflect that focus,   such as lists of essential outcomes, different kind of assessment, analyses of student achievement, and strategies for improving results. Teams must develop norms or protocols to clarify expectations regarding roles, responsibilities, and relationships among team members. Teams must adopt student achievement goals linked with school and district goals. –What is a professional learning community? (DuFour, 2004)

What makes a strong team? What makes a dysfunctional team? I’ve seen both in action, and I’ve been part of both. As administrators we need to recognize the characteristics of effective teacher teams so we can build capacity within them, strengthening the organization as a whole. To further extend this collaborative power for learning, teachers can and should incorporate team-building and team problem-solving activities into their classrooms with students.

A team of researchers from Centre for Innovation in Education from the Queensland University for Technology set out to identify the characteristics of effective school-based teams through the lens of micropolitics. Their findings are relevant for schools and school-based systems dealing with school-based management and similar reforms/restructurings in that they developed a tool to assess and enhance the effectiveness of teams. Critical reflection of team dynamics should include a look at the

  • clarity of the team’s role and objectives
    • competence and credibility of the team members
    • uniformity of members’ values and their commitment to team work
    • interpersonal relationships and communication among members and between members and other staff
    • accessibility of professional development opportunities for the team and for its individual members

    Developing strengths in these dimensions will better establish school teams in that they will be more prepared to engage in decision-making processes, develop better relationships among colleagues, and embrace future possibilities rather than focus on current realities (Cranston, Ehrich, Reugebrink, & Gaven, 2002).

    I am generally pleased with the collaborative efforts my teachers are making. Each team is finding their way… each team member is defining and honing his/her role in that team. One area where we need to develop is in our team leadership/coaching roles. Team leaders were appointed and attended professional development sessions on coaching and adult learning. This experience was not enough to impress upon our teacher leaders the essential components that exemplify a true leader. They need continuous exposure to new ideas, time to conduct peer observation and reflections, and time spent with administration to work at defining and refining the shared vision and goals of the school. Most of all, these team leaders need to extend trust to all members of the team and school, and need to be trusted by all. This aspect requires a lot of work and dedication on everyone’s part.

    Finally, I’d like to share @l_hilt’s Dos & Don’ts of team dynamics….

    • Do seek to act upon that which you can positively change. Don’t be negative and dwell on things you cannot.
    • Do be a giver. Don’t be selfish.
    • Do understand that “the way we’ve always done things” is not necessarily the best way to help students learn. Don’t get sucked into a solitary cave of complacency.
    • Do communicate clearly, accurately, and respectfully. Don’t hide your feelings about a situation or make them known maliciously.
    • Do be open and accepting. Don’t be defensive.
    • Do realize that you are not the most important part of the equation. Don’t forget for one second that the child is.