Quick Reflection: How to be a good principal (or person…same thing)

The first response that keeps coming up is presence. Leaders can’t lead from an ivory tower. The best results come from watching and experiencing school first hand. That means being in the hallways, observing in the classroom, and making contact/conversation with families at drop off and pickup times. The more we are seen as a part of the daily program, the better our credit with all parties involved.

Second is personal investment. Sitting with teachers at the lunch table (see presence) and asking for home and school stories doesn’t necessarily integrate you into the foxhole community, but it shows your interest in making it better.

Third is accessibility. We need to be available and prompt this availability in conversation with faculty by encouraging group or one-on-one meetings. We need to open our door to parents – in either case, not to make change, but to ensure that parties are heard. There is so much

Finally, we need to be LISTENING. Further, we should say, with intention, that we are listening. So establish our role as lead listener – not necessarily with a solution as the end game…but to serve as fact-finder and a hub of possibility.

Are We Asking the Wrong Question?

We are all the Man in the Arena

As an educational leader, I worry about gun safety laws in our country and how we plan on making the world safer. However, I don’t have an opinion on gun safety that I’d like to share; I’m ignorant on the legal and political stances of key decision makers to really have an intelligent conversation. But I am an avid Brene Brown reader, so I harken back to an analogy in Daring Greatly as she references Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech. As we enter into our own worlds (offices downtown to classrooms full of children), we all enter our own arenas in which we must fight like gladiators to achieve our goals. And the loudest, most nefarious critics are often those in the cheapest seats. Yet they influence us as we fight, serving as that nagging voice in the back of our heads, questioning our every move. But I’m doing battle every day…and I must do so with confidence that the tools I utilize will facilitate my success.
I do not mean to insinuate that someone else is a critic I refer to above; rather, you and I are both gladiators in our own arena. So I am sure you can see my frustration when listening to those who claim to be “in the middle of it all” but do not recognize that there are actually people in the middle of it all. As I watch the news stream on my computer, I can’t help but feel there are so many who are trying to be first to the microphone on one side of the conversation or the other, claiming to have a solution while saying everyone else is wrong, while those of us sitting in classrooms continue to live, day by day, with a mission to help children in spite of the potential threat to our safety. I don’t know the answer to gun control, and I don’t pretend to even like the conversation. However, I cannot help but think of that typical movie scene where mom and dad are yelling at each other…and the young kid is quietly escaping stage left to a haphazard hangout with friends also looking for relief.

Expectations are Growing in Bad Roots

According to Kegan and Lahey’s thesis in The Immunity to Change, people fall prey to the status quo because today’s culture has demanded it for so long that systemic change becomes practically impossible. Taking this thought into education, Dr. David Gleason postulates that today’s student has an achievement problem singularly facilitated by the fact that our children’s successes are orchestrated to escalate a family’s social status…and that is a norm which seems to be immune to change. On this Educating Modern Learners podcast, Dr. Gleason shares his research-based concern that has me thinking – have we made our own bed with school violence? Gleason expresses the issue in his new book, At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools, as one in which we place high, socially-normed expectations for success on those who are not yet neurologically developed enough to meet them. For instance, parents want their child to be the Harvard-bound kid, or the ace on the pitcher’s mound, or first chair violin in order to “be successful,” and therefore provide indirect validation to a family’s success. The cost of this crushing neurological responsibility is often too much for a child to bear. No matter the level of achievement, asking a young person to live up to someone else’s dreams is like trying to turn the Titanic with telekinesis; the iceberg frequently becomes an easier route. I just pray that the damage is small enough to repair. I don’t mean to talk out of both sides of my own mouth: kids don’t have the mental capability of knowing what they want and how to get it until much later in life. However, imposing an expectation of success that is unrealistic only causes anxiety, frustration, and (at times) retaliation.

Recalculating…

In my opinion, we need to confront the issue, head on. As a mentor advises, “confrontation is the hallmark of caring and the soul of honesty.” But perhaps we are confronting the wrong issue. Is the gun control really the problem, or is the root much, much bigger?

Imagine, Imagine, Imagine

My youngest son loves Elmo. He adores watching this character sing and dance, particularly with Taye Diggs as they go driving in their imaginary yellow automobile. For some reason, this little jam gets Parker moving and singing. He loves making the sounds that a car makes; he’ll watch the same video over and over. However, the song is not what I think about when I watch it with my boy. At the beginning of the video, Taye and Elmo “imagine, imagine, imagine” what their ideal car and drive would look like. They even remember to imagine seat belts!

Today, Elmo’s fun video has me thinking: what do I “imagine, imagine, imagine” when it comes to school? How has my vision changed over the course of the school year because of the challenges set before me by the facilitators and members of the Change.School program? How about the lessons learned from my colleagues at Presbyterian?

A Million Dreams are Keeping Me Awake

Much like Elmo, I close my eyes, and I can imagine a few key ideas:

  • I am meeting with middle school faculty. While greeting them, I ask them to reflect on why they enter the classroom each day. Do they enjoy the skill-driven learning goals they have built their curriculum and the ways in which they engage students? Am I feeding them with opportunities to do create dynamic learning spaces? Are they enticing students to own their learning process?
    • Teachers construct an adventurous environment in which students can explore and pursue learning with passion and vigor. It is my hope that we move beyond simple engagement with content. Especially for middle school children, almost all content will resurface in the coming years. So content is the medium; however, the true learning in place hones collaborative and creative skill. Learning to learn is the model.
  • I am observing a class that is exploring a new concept. Students are struggling with the challenge, leaning on each other and the micro-discoveries that manifest throughout the group on the way to comprehension. Students are smiling because they enjoy the challenge designed by the teacher in the room. That teacher is there to facilitate wonder and guide young thinkers towards a common pathway.
    • Learning spaces model trial-and-error; students should never fear the potential of failure as a step towards success. Grades as metrics do not provide any sort of long-term value; rather, it’s the skill to develop and manage a process that makes a great student and learner. Students should feel a sense of urgency to identify problems and make an effort to discover evidence which lead to answers…and more questions.
  • I envision learning opportunities in all spaces and from all sorts of places. Students are on their iPads, searching a multitude of spaces, referencing texts they may have found virtually or in the learning commons on campus. The teacher in the room bring her or his own knowledge base to the table as well, only inspiring further research.
    • The spark may come from other people in the room, such as students, YouTube, the docent at the museum, the professional with life experiences to share, etc. We need to tap into all resources in our learning spaces; to fall short in this area is simply a failure of the system as a whole.

Developing a Roadmap to Get There

I believe in the power of teacher autonomy. I should not need to observe and review lesson plans when my vision is clearly articulated and genuinely adopted by faculty. We hire faculty who demonstrate a willingness to buy into the culture of our school and appreciate the pedagogical freedom to live into that vision on one’s own terms. Further, teachers should have the authority to challenge my vision with practical evidence of “a better way” to inspire learning and student agency. That is what a division meeting is for – a gathering of individual vision so that we can move forward together as a confident unit. I look forward to the time we as a division can play together as much as the time when we wrestle through our differences. I would never claim to have all the answers (which is why I surround myself with smarter people in the room). So, is there a roadmap? I’d say the faculty in my division depend of me for a direction of travel, not how to get there. That diversity of thought makes school messy…and messiness models creativity in our students.

What is Modern Learning?

Taken from a comment I made on a very intriguing post in my Change.School community:

Modern Learning is all about the “who” in our daily life. Now, I stole this mantra from my mentor, but I firmly believe in it. Modern learning requires us to know our audience and present ideas and concepts (whether required or via passionate personal interest) in a way that is relatable to each person in the room. We must work very hard to research and explore ways to connect to those whom we hope to inspire. To change a culture, we need buy in…and everyone’s buy in is specific to personal need. However, when we can connect that personal need to the needs of the many, we have an opportunity for real change.

modern-learning-6-reasons-why-learning-has-changed-forever

So Modern Learning connects personal need and interest to that of the larger community or system. ML turns all boats towards the same guiding light so that we can arrive, together, at a place of enlightenment and growth.

Social Media and Our Young Learners: An Article Response

The Source of Urgency

If you have not read this article from The Atlantic (September 2017 Issue), please take a moment to check it out. The article, written by Jean M. Twenge, contains incredible research and interpretation of information. The blog post you are reading now contains my own thoughts as well as the thoughts of a mentor.
I love and fully recognize the irony of reading the post that introduced me to the article while on my phone…and staying up late to respond to it on that same device. I began to share my thoughts as a comment to Will Richardson's post on the Change.School community (yes, even more irony). But as I think about the content presented in the Atlantic article and the likely response my school community, I am compelled to share my thoughts with a larger audience. I am passionate about the effects of social media on our young students for one very poignant reason: I love the kids who walk through our hallways as I do my own children. Further, I agree that they constantly battle unhappiness because of the social pressures thrown at them (and embraced by them) every day.

A Little Background

My school facilitates a 1:1 (iPad) school technology program, and has done so for a number of years. We were one of the first private schools in the city of Houston to adopt this pedagogical shift comprehensively beginning in 5th grade about five years ago. Our students have embraced the iPad as an essential element to support learning and teachers have learned to let go of traditional, static learning tools (like textbooks) to focus on the immeasurable volume of information via online research. We are discovering better ways to inspire learning every year; I appreciate our ability to be nimble in pedagogy and curriculum while continuing to find success in developing young minds. Just search "prepare the child for the path" and see the inspirational messaging for yourself.
Technology should never dictate the breadth or depth of the learning that goes on in the classroom; that exploration depends on the learner and those that facilitate learning (more on this idea later). But the devices in the hands of our students should serve as a means to make learning visible through demonstrative evidence of growth. Never is this device intended to be a "consumption only" tool. We want to teach students to own their learning and therefore be in control of the various tools at their disposal. But much like Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side despite his training in and knowledge of the light side of the force, power and authority over others can be a unavoidable temptation. We cannot guide the hands of our students (nor should we). And that brings us back to Twenge's article.

Tell Me You Got the Plates on that Truck…

Allow me to begin with a clarifying statement: I agree with every piece of evidence Twenge presents. Social media has the potential to serve as the greatest threat to adolescents, more so than any other in our modern history. But in all the evidence she presents, I'm left with the pressing question: Why is this continuing to happen? Her research goes back 25 years; why have we not stepped on the brakes? It is clear that the greater we (that is, every single adult making an impact on an adolescent) never developed the skills to teach our kids how to navigate social media, and specifically through the comments of others. It seems that, according to Twenge, the "sticks and stones" adage exists with reckless abandon in social media outlets and can end with depression and (God forbid) suicide. In my own school, there are a small group of families that have serious concerns about the amount of technology to which our academic program exposes students on a daily basis. They feel that children need to learn traditional, pre-tech methods of learning. While I address this specific concern in the above paragraph, I worry that Twenge's article creates even more angst to the danger of any screen time, even the positive model we emphasize.

Does Anybody Have a Map?

The title of this section refers to a song from the Broadway show destroying the competition these days, Dear Evan Hanson. I love the music written for this show; however, the content is a bit hard to swallow. This musical describes how a teenager dealing with depression and being a social outcast considers suicide to solve his anonymity. "13 Reasons" is a made-for-Netflix production with revenge suicide as its central plot line, presented as the ultimate way to get back at all those so-called "friends" who insulted, raped, and dismissed a young girl. These high-traffic shows sensationalize one way to respond to the the very emotional roller coaster our students are experiencing. These example have a significantly louder voice than, say, mom and dad (or teacher). So my question is this: How has a young person's ability to own their online narrative been marginalized, instead deferring them to the extreme alternatives just mentioned? As Will states in a response to my comment: "This [need to educate kids on how to use devices properly] is a HUGE part of any technology roll out in schools, but one that is hardly mentioned amidst discussions around bandwidth, filtering, appropriate use, and safety." At this point in time, all I have seen is a budding awareness of the issue. Can we move beyond awareness?

Finding Center Stage

Will goes on to say: "The dissonance for us is that we [adults] have some context for "how it used to be." Kids don't. This is what life looks like now. Our job is to help them understand that people's lives aren't just the highlight reels they post online, and find a healthy balance that many of them don't even know they're missing." This gem of an observation identifies the crux: kids live in this world of full-time connectivity since the day they were born (e.g., using Instagram in a delivery room, or at least responding to a post of that kind). From the cheap seats, the simple answer is "less screen time." After all, if we prevent our kids from being exposed to social media, we solve the problem, right? The truth is, any screen time can lead to misguided decisions that haunt forever. I'll use a Brené Brown reference here: when we (or our students) are in "the arena," our devices are a permanent tool/weapon available to us, for better or for worse. Wielding such a tool with confidence requires training and MODELING. I, for one, have a long way to go in that second category. But, as the saying goes, it's never the tool that acts…action always remains in the hands of the one who wields it. Parents, teachers, and anyone a young person admires must realize how they are being observed in person (think of the parent you see at the pool who is constantly distracted by the number of "likes" on their Facebook post) and followed virtually (when you "friend" your child, or your friend's child, you are sharing everything with them that you post online).

it's never the tool that acts…action always remains in the hands of the one who wields it

Ultimately, there must be an acknowledgement by schools and parents of the way students manipulate and are manipulated by their online interactions. Only through committed partnership for rehabilitation (for lack of a better word) can we help steer this conversation back towards the infinite value of the tool rather than it being the source of "unhappiness."

Super Heroine Influx

Maybe it’s just me, but I have noticed a significant uptake in Disney’s (and many other realms, for that matter) efforts to enhance their female presence. In highlighting legacy feminine phenoms (Cinderella, Snow White, etc.) and the introduction of today’s leading ladies (Moana, Wonder Woman, to name a couple… yes, I realize that WW is a part of the DC reunion tour), I am THRILLED to see this effort, and not for the young ladies watching today’s shows; but, for the young men. How wonderful is it for our boys to celebrate and worship super heroine archetypes showing that women can be all and more of what previous generations expected from male icons, only.

But my question is this: How do these women display body images that are appropriate for today’s youth? 

What IS appropriate for today’s youth? I appreciate the various “builds”that appear (Moana versus Wonder Woman, for instance) and how ANYONE can be super with determination and grit. But is it enough? I observed a Disney, Jr. commercial showing a laundry list of great heroines… but this all-at-once effort cannot be sustained, can it?

I’d love your thoughts.

Driving towards a better model

Many schools today consider a move towards new learning methods as they seek to improve on traditional school design. A program in which I am participating, called Change.School, consistently stretches my brain to consider ways in which I lead my school and why I have chosen to do so. Some questions presented by a colleague in a recent post had me thinking particularly hard, so I will share my thoughts with you.

1.  What is the role of direct teaching in an inquiry based classroom driven by student questions?

I have researched the National Paideia Center and later had this organization come to train our faculty on a component of their framework: the Paideia seminar. Their stance is that a typical classroom should see about ten to fifteen percent didactic learning (with the vast majority of the remaining time be saved for practical application of knowledge and discussion via the aforementioned seminar). I’m a math guy, so these numbers speak to me as proper guidelines for leaders who want to give learning ownership to the students in the classroom.

2. Is there a role for teacher developed provocations?

I strongly believe in modeling how we expect our students to engage in their learning. Trevor MacKenzie has written Dive into Inquiry, a text that focuses on a gradual release of ownership to students when building an inquiry-based classroom. From phrasing the essential question which guides the inquiry to choosing research methods and the eventual medium to demonstrate learning, MacKenzie explores how to gradually shift each of these pieces to eventually reach “Free Inquiry.” Food for thought (and a good, quick read).

3. Once we determine the exit skills for a variety of stages in the educational development of children, can we give ownership of the standards to the children and allow them to determine how they will demonstrate their proficiency?

I think this is a brilliant idea. But as a senior thesis paper must be “defended,” so too should a student have to defend how and why the chosen demonstration accurately displays proficiency. Perhaps a better question is: “How can a student show learning as opposed to proficiency?” It seems to me that we need to measure progress and development towards mastery and not the snapshot, quantitative value on where a student is at any given moment. Learning is linear and follows its own time…but we can objectively measure that development given the proper rubric to follow.

4. How do we ensure a visibility to the teaching and learning going on in schools and how do we ensure parents are integral partners in the process.

Parents must have a strong level of engagement in the learning process. In the demonstration of proficiency you mentioned in the previous question, I would think that parents should be able to observe and appreciate the level of learning that has transpired. A fun activity would be to build a sort of “passport” for parents or visitors to use as a roadmap to see the different displays of learning to a) build a community that celebrates learning, and b) see the comparative progress made from one student to the next.

5. Should we be co-creating assessment criteria with students and then give them full partnership in assessing their peers and themselves? What does the role of the teacher look like in this environment?

This question brings to mind a slide that my headmaster uses in his presentation on assessment. It looks something like this:

There are 3 types of assessment in today’s classroom:

  1. Assessment FOR learning – enables teachers to use information about students’ knowledge to inform their teaching while providing feedback to students about their learning and how to improve
  2. Assessment AS learning – involves students in the learning process where they monitor their own progress/skill development through self-assessment and teacher feedback. Students can ask questions about their progress as a reflection of their learning and to re-set goals for the future.
  3. Assessment OF learning – the most typical type of assessment in today’s schools; this type of assessment measures student achievement against learning goals and standards.

6. Should attention still be paid to building community and ensuring we are building citizenship skills as well as facilitating student driven inquiry?

In my mind, a student is never going to remember what he learned in 6th grade science; however, she is NEVER going to forget the way that teacher made her FEEL. If you haven’t yet seen Mrs. Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk on relationships, then take some time to do so right now. Why am I a teacher/school leader? To ensure that I am building inquisitive CITIZENS who understand that character builds reputation (not knowledge or skill).

7.  Is there a time when a topic is so compelling a teacher should/must draw it to the attention of students and invite them to investigate?

I think this question goes into my answer for question 2. However, when something like the World Trade Center attacks occurs, we MUST stop and investigate how this changes the world in which we live. Granted, I believe this disruption is both the most difficult and most impactful “teachable moment” an educator has the opportunity to share with his students.


As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on these topics. Thanks for reading!

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