if you got a problem…yo, I’ll solve it.

Ice, Ice, Baby

This is a great article, and one worth considering as applicable to students and to the adults in the room. I just returned from a conference with other Division Heads during which Dr. Rob Evans, educational psychologist and author, spoke in the closing session about the “tough conversation” between schools and families. One major connection to this article Kate shared and his talk occurred when he stated,
“We live in a time when opportunities for our children continue to increase exponentially, while predictability of future options has been decreasing just as quickly.” 
It sounds like the coping mechanism for anxiety is often medically prescribed, when, in truth, what we all need is more time; however, I don’t think any remedy outside of a magic wand can provide us more hours in our day. Yet we crave a time to think and reflect on our daily lives, our school schedule, etc. From the very youngest to the CEO, time to think would do us all a world of good and lead to better choices. Dr. Evans goes a bit further to discuss a very poignant fact:

Problems can be fixed; dilemmas can be managed. 

Often times, looking at the way we handle issues in our lives can determine how much anxiety we bring upon ourselves. We cannot control everything, yet our instant life via mobile devices makes us think we can. But true problems are in need of solutions that disrupt the issue and provide a new road to travel. A dilemma is more on the level of inconvenience; perhaps, dilemmas can be serviced better with a bit of white-out rather than trashing the blueprints altogether.
The summer provides me an incredible opportunity, even in the midst of shuttling my boys to and from activities to keep them occupied while I’m at work, to reflect on my practice. I can slow down, think about priorities and (for instance) write about my thoughts in a venue such as this blog. I can think about how I do school; my expectations and reasonings behind various events and actions throughout the year. Most of all, I need to consider what problems I can cut out, and what dilemmas I am capable of fixing.
I hope and pray that your anxiety levels drop with the coming of a slower, or perhaps an alternative schedule this summer. I invite you to view the future weeks with hope and possibility.

And the Teachers Respond! (A FedEx Day Follow Up)

Square peg in a round hole with hanner

Tired of the Square Peg Problem?

Last month, I presented to teachers the idea of pursuing specific interests that would improve our school. The offer included coverage for their classes for a day (or more, if that is what it takes) to do the research and explore their ideas.

While it is my hope that teachers are still developing their ideas (and I continue to remind them of this opportunity…if even to brainstorm ideas with me in order to craft a proposal), a few teachers have already come forward with some very interesting ideas. Here is a summary of each one (so that you can see where the conversation is moving):

I. Collaborative Meeting Design

One of the projects addresses the problem of grade leave meeting inefficiency. Specifically targeting teacher collaborative meetings, the leader of this FedEx plan has researched various meeting styles to explore better ways for us to gather productively. She has come across the Collaborative Meeting Design (CMD) methodology and has learned that another school in Houston utilizes this system. She will go and shadow a few of their meetings to learn about the system and reflect on its value compared to our current meeting environment. Should she determine CMD to be the right fit, her next goal will be to develop a training tool that the rest of us can review in order to utilize the system next year.

II. Paideia Seminar

A second problem identified by a teacher is that of empowering students to lead conversations in general class discussions (that is, beyond a presentation or prepared project). One of the programs I utilized in my previous school was the Paideia Seminar. (Simply put, Paideia means “education” in English). Built on a pedagogical paradigm from Paideia.org, the Paideia Seminar is similar to the Harkness model, but centers on wondrous, disruptive thought. The Seminar isn’t a dialogue about current content; instead, it focuses on a standalone primary source, creating analytical conversation about this source, and formulating questions that align the Seminar conversation to current content in the classroom. This process is galvanized by reflective writing at the end of the conversation. It’s quite innovative (or extremely classical in nature, depending on your point of view), and very easily incorporated into a school in search of ways to improve student-led discussion.

Needless to say, I have been pushing for someone to find ways to incorporate this model into a classroom system. A teacher has stepped forward and asked for training in this model! She will work with me over the remaining school days (reading texts, studying teaching materials) and then we will think about the intentional design of Seminars throughout the coming fall.

III. Improving Our Professional Learning Committees

Once a month, our school gathers after the day is over to have small professional discussions. This past fall, our discussions have targeted the concept of assessment and how we can ask our students to demonstrate, via new and dynamic methods, their approach to mastery in the small- and large-scale units presented throughout the school year.

The problem identified in this FedEx plan is that the PLC conversation has stymied a bit and teachers are looking for ways to refresh the conversation. In this teacher’s mind, faculty members should take more ownership of the PLC discussion and be able to demonstrate results in the classroom and throughout the school program. He has offered to research and design a new “PLC Model” that will enhance the innovative thought and accountability in future school years. Though we have not met yet, I imagine this teacher to be quite creative in the retooling of the PLC program.

A whole lotta thinking going on here!

I am so proud of those teachers who are diving into the deep end with FedEx Day ideas. As these problems develop into action plans and those plans take effect, I will follow up with more documentation. Thanks for reading…should you have two cents (or 200) on one or all of these subjects, do not hesitate to comment and share so that I can pass the thoughts on to the teachers working on each plan.

Innovation Day, Inbound!

Eyes Front

Tomorrow my school will have an inservice day for all the faculty and staff. I am super excited to see the possibilities unfold as we begin to look forward towards 2017-2018. In the administrative world, the master calendar for next year is all but solidified in concrete, and the various open spaces in our faculty teams have been identified. Solutions begin to appear daily, and the image of the coming school year is more than a mirage off in the distance. At the same time, however, the leadership team has been evaluating our various philosophies regarding the way we do business and targeting those pieces that need retooling. From schedules to the names of courses, everything gets a first look so that we can be sure that we are doing things with the learner in mind.

You can probably tell that this time of year is my favorite, as opportunity meets action. While we have no need to reinvent the wheel, it is my job to talk to faculty and leadership with the purpose of brainstorming ways to ensure that this wheel is screwed on tightly and well greased.

But for some, particularly students (insert “7th graders” here), this time of year can seem to drag on until Spring Break. People often find the phrase “more of the same” repugnant; I believe that there is always an opportunity to rebuild or redesign a program to make it better for our students and the learning in the classroom. So, in an effort to jazz things up a bit, I am instituting my first FedEx/Innovation Day program for the faculty.

Creative Juices Oozing

I learned about the FedEx day model a few years ago, but it just resurfaced as a logical thought this past month as I read through this Connected Principals blogpost by Chris Wejr. I was pleasantly surprised to find it; the timing could not be more ideal! For those of you new to the idea, a FedEx day allows an individual to pursue an innovative thought without the impediment of the regular grind getting in the way. In other words, someone covers your job while you pursue an idea that would benefit both you and your place of work. The goal of a FedEx day serves one’s heart and (in this case) one’s school as a teacher innovator creates an action plan that would bring a new idea to life. This isn’t a replacement program that simply changes the way we do our current curriculum; FedEx day is a game-changing, disruptive thought that could make us greater as an institution while demonstrating teacher mastery. I have already challenged teachers to start thinking about how they could utilize a FedEx day in a previous division meeting. It is my hope that tomorrow serves as the beginning of a time when our great minds can walk through open doors.

This isn’t a replacement program that simply changes the way we do our current curriculum; FedEx day is a game-changing, disruptive thought that could make us greater as an institution and that demonstrates teacher mastery.

In reality, the design of an action plan may require more FedEx time; that need has to present itself in the plan at the end of the day, and then the driver of the FedEx program can determine if more time away from the norm is warranted. But the initial day is one of creative flow. Here is the program model as I presented it to the middle school faculty:

  1. Take the afternoon of our inservice day, from 1:30 until going home, to think and design a plan to have some FedEx time.
  2. Create this action plan (there isn’t a specific design to this plan, but it’s sort of like a field trip form that we use…purpose, logistics, who is involved, goal, etc.)
  3. Send me the plan so that we can sit down and discuss how I can help bring an idea into light.
  4. Once ratified, the FedEx Day proposal will have these features at a teacher’s disposal:
    • Use a workday (without spending a personal day) to begin working on this plan.
    • Employ the MS Leadership team to act as teachers in the classroom for the day (so we will need lesson plans, unless it’s a day given to us in order to bring in something unique).
    • Request funding (as needed) to help bring this day into development. While funding is severely limited, it is never a bad idea to ask for help!

In thinking of the way I envision this program to go, I have done some brainstorming of various ideas:

  • Building a research project for your students that has them explore new and exciting learning strategies.
  • Searching for a MOOC or some sort of professional development program to complete and share with the faculty.
  • Exploring a new digital tool to introduce to students and teach faculty.
  • Creating a photograph collage or artwork to share with the school and the students (think faculty gallery).

I’m sure this list could grow as I sit here and do some thinking. I really hope that the various members of our great faculty sink their collective teeth into the FedEx idea. My personal goal with this program remains in the effort to make this school the very best place to work. In giving teachers a voice and opportunity to express their ideas, I hope that I’m on the right track.

Quarter One in the Books!

It’s the end of a quarter, and therefore time do some reflecting on the first nine weeks. As you gather yourself this weekend and start thinking ahead, I dare you to challenge the phrase “history repeats itself” by thinking critically on your own successes and failures as an educator these past weeks. Reflecting on ways to build capacity for success is essential in our business, so take a look at the questions below and do some self-assessing:

  1. Think on the first nine weeks – what areas in your teaching world have been successful, and what areas need retooling?
  2. If your students were not required to attend class next quarter, what tangible examples will inspire them to come anyway?
  3. Recognizing your are not alone in your professional world, who can help you process the answers to these questions and help you execute a plan for the coming weeks?

Take a moment to think about the cycle presented below. It is not my own, but comes from a text that I found to be centering at the end of a quarter (Hall, Simeral. Teach Reflect Learn: Building your Capacity for Success in the Classroom).

 

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Making Failure a Priority

This image appeared on my LinkedIn feed yesterday, sparking thoughts and reflection about why the middle school years are so crucial. Tweenagers, children between the ages of 10 and 15, go through a roller coaster of changes. They discover independence and passion for new ideas and interests, particularly during the school day. As they discover opportunities to make decisions sans parent influence, tweenagers find their path more open and free as their capabilities have increased. However, this freedom comes with risk attached. In discovering passions, the inevitability of failure surfaces. For students at my school, a fear of failure predicates all decisions. Quite often, they test the waters only to back off after a mistake or an undesirable result develops. As you can see from the examples below, it’s that “comfort zone” of effort that we need to expunge.

“My parents will kill me if I don’t make an A.”
Students love the easy ‘A.’ The gratification of seeing a good grade on a test or report card starts early and carries forward throughout our adult life. But anyone can take the easy road to make the grade; the more memorable academic work arrives when taking the road less traveled. However, students are hesitant to take risks on a project or paper because the uncharted path, though more interesting and dynamic, may not provide an easy avenue to earning high marks. Pursuing a unique and creative path takes effort and iteration which means patience in academic effort. Teachers are welcoming of this path; looking at a new topic or seeing a student take a new angle with a project is energizing to a classroom. We as educators need to remain vocal in our support of these trailblazers so that they can see the value of the road less traveled.

“We lost the game. We suck.”
When it comes to sports, middle school students are diving into a whole new world. No matter the game, the average tweenager is only developing the concept of being a “cog in the wheel.” After so many years of being in the spotlight, especially in today’s ribbon-happy athletic environment, being a piece to the puzzle versus the solution is humbling at best. Some young athletes reach puberty early, giving them the physical edge; this only adds to the disillusion of the rest of the pack as they watch their classmate get the glory.

Second, so many times in my coaching career I have heard the opinion of “we suck” based on the fact that the team lost the game yesterday. It’s hard for a young person to see the baby steps of progress that it takes to become a strong, successful team. As I speak to students after a game, the response to “how did the game go?” is always black and white. Win or loss. So my second question is always, “How did YOU do?” The response to this question is interesting – after debriefing personal performance, students are very quick to celebrate the success of a teammate. Perhaps the question triggers that “cog and wheel” perspective in the tweenage brain. But coaches and parents alike can help a student overcome that all-or-nothing response by asking about the space between.

Power in Failing
As I return to the image that sparked this post, let’s look at the key pieces to the acronym shown in the picture:

F.A.I.L.

  • F: First – In order to fail, you have to try (and try again). Ramana Maharshi, sage thinker who devoted his life to exploring self-inquiry, is quoted saying, “No one succeeds without effort…Those who succeed owe their success to perseverance.” We must teach young people to take that first leap of faith, and to be comfortable with the outcome, whatever it may be.
  • A: Attempt – These days a young person believes that attempt = successful completion. I host an after school club every other week when students come to play chess and other types of board games. I find it interesting that, even in a gaming situation, students won’t make the attempt against an opponent they know is good (or better than they are) at a game. For instance, Alex is a chess master, and students are afraid to play him. With this decision, there isn’t a way to improve. We must educate tweenagers to re-engineer their understanding of an attempt to one of trial and error.
  • L: Learning – Skill development is the very essence of forming the teenage mind. To me, the definition of learning finds its foundation in skill development. To put it another way, failure is a part of developing skills. Finding out what doesn’t work provides a wealth of understanding for a young person. Failure is a life experience that helps, not only in the current effort, but in all those efforts to come.

Take a moment to reflect on how you teach failure in your classroom. It may be the most important lesson you can provide a young person.