What’s in Your Front Drawer?

I want to stop and think about the requirements of the modern educator. Considering ways to upgrade the design of education and move the construct away from silo-based learning models to one that resembles an mobile think-tank, we have to remember that the instruments of learning are many. Ideas in a learning space should move in many directions at once. Adding in the potential for a hybrid design of school, we have to recenter learning properly.

Learning spaces are small ecosystems of growth and development, requiring an educator to know every inch of the physical or digital space and the opportunities therein.

Think about all the time we have spent in quarantine. Most of us have not taught in a classroom since last March. That leaves six months of time when a learner was left to her own devices – daily accountability becomes harder and harder to maintain when the structure of the day disappears and consistency is lost. Even when remote school programs were in session, interactions that occur organically during in-person school were sorely missed – all instruction and collaboration had to be constructed and thus felt artificial. Learning spaces are small ecosystems of growth and development, requiring an educator to know every inch of the physical or digital space and the opportunities therein. Oftentimes, the supremely talented educators do not have the extra bandwidth to think about the system as a whole. And rightly so: the amount of work that goes into one learning space is exhausting and requires one’s full intellectual capital.

The Road Ahead

As a school leader, I must work to connect the dots and create a supportive cultural web which aligns with school mission and values. This is what I like to think of as my “Front Drawer” material. When opening the front drawer of your desk, what is it that you see? Do you have necessary items for the day, or is it loaded with surgery snacks that you aren’t allowed to have at home? (I have fallen prey to the latter throughout my career.) Is there a journal, or loose leaf paper for writing down ideas? Does the drawer have quick access to references that provide a focus on the vital pieces of school policy and culture? Are there reminders of why you are where you are?

Now, think about the abstract files, components, and capabilities that may appear in your “mental” front drawer. I have had a few conversations on this topic and will share what I believe to be essential components in the mental front drawer of the modern K-12 educator. I’m sure I’ll miss something, so feel free to chime in (though know that I will steal your idea as a contribution to the list!).

Here are the components and capabilities that I’ll review over the next few weeks:

  • Designing Learning Opportunities with Intention
  • Explicit vs. Implicit Instruction
  • Technological Confidence
  • Culturally Aware and Anti-Racist Educators
  • Practical Approaches to Modern Learning Using Brain Science
  • Understanding Divisional Expectations

Designing Learning Opportunities with Intention

The resulting garden of ideas allows for diversity of thought and joyful collaboration.

Teachers should have a endgame plan for anything introduced in the classroom. Inspired teaching surfaces when an educator has an innovative idea for a learning session filled with wonderful conversation and discovery. Moving from good to great teaching occurs when the educator connects the innovation to a bigger picture that he or she is hoping will take root in the minds of students. Without that connection, the session becomes a one-off moment of light bulb explosion without a denouement. The best approach here is to start with a goal that is malleable, not in a way that compromises the end game, but in a way that allows the learner to define how his or her process can arrive at the established goal. In other words, teachers must set parameters wide enough to allow for a goal to live and breath, adapting to the direction each child takes it. The resulting garden of ideas allows for diversity of thought and joyful collaboration. A goal whose scope is too narrow in its original form may develop a glorious flower, but that flower is singular in design, and more often that not fails to personalize the learning process for each child as they are only enhancing someone else’s work instead of making the work her own. Build a rich garden – many colors, many sizes and shapes. It’ll last longer in the minds and maximize the capabilities of the gardeners.

Speaking of a beautiful garden, let’s consider how to set that up. I encourage educators to consider ways to build a demonstration of the learning that rests on top of the learning goal as opposed to creating an assessment that comes at the end of the process. Learning offers the opportunity to make minor course corrections along the pathway to understanding. The ability for a young person to iterate based on discoveries over the course of the learning process is a skill that needs guidance with a focus on metacognitive reflection. Therefore assessment of the learning process best occurs (for the most part) in real time so as to encourage reflection and refinement. There may be a final rubric to which a learner must adhere; in many cases there is a need to finalize and move on. For this reason, the comprehensive rubric should be available from day one so that the target reference is always accessible. As a student reflects, she can build and adjust her contribution to garden as she sees fit within the ecosystem created as a palette.

An assessment should be a palette of your creation on which the students can design a way to show that they have both realized something and are eager to share their discovery with someone else.

Though I’m over-simplifying, “I’ll just put a question about today’s lesson on the next test” simply doesn’t cut it. Would you want someone to acknowledge a great feeling of accomplishment by assessing how much has been memorized as a way to determine success? On the contrary, an assessment should be a palette of your creation on which the students can design a way to show that they have both realized something and are eager to share their ideas with someone else. It is up to each educator to create the framework which inspires this way of thinking from the start. The process through which this constructive-based knowledge should manifest can stem from different lesson constructs. Every teacher has his or her own way of building lessons, and that is great as long as the pattern of creation is consistent. Whether using Backwards Design, Universal Design, or Design Thinking models, all must first start with a goal for understanding followed by a way to connect the daily activity to the overall learning goal. I encourage you to explore these three models to learn about them and how they fit your pedogogical opinions and connect to the idea of tying daily activities to the big picture.

What is your method of content creation? Do you refer back to a guiding question you have created or adopted? Please share in the comments.

My “What” and My “Why”

I’m on my way back from Santa Fe, NM, after attending a Division Heads conference for area private school leaders. As I sit in the back of the airplane, I find myself surprised to find a unique opportunity to reflect on my practice. For inspiration in this effort, I turn to the May 2017 issue of Educational Leadership Magazine, particularly to an article entitled, “Is Your School Better Because You Lead It?” by Bondi K. Kafele. Within the article, Kafele asks two questions for the reader to ponder: “What is your work about?” and “Why do you do it?

These are perfect reflection questions for any professional. I will take a slab in building my own answers here.

What is your work about?

There’s nothing like a 30,000 foot question to get me thinking. My work is all about the privileged child and how that young person can better understand the opportunities afforded to him or her because of various, unique environments available either at home or in our school. Facing reality, my 250 students enjoy an elevated classroom experience free of outside, standardized influence when compared to the typical experience which manifests in thousands of public school learning environments because requirements which exist outside of their control often tie their hands behind their backs. It is therefore my role to guide our teachers and students in the conversation that explores how this special opportunity to teach in a private educational environment reveals an obligation to lead others to success. That success manifests in various professional and personal avenues to be appreciated and celebrated.

Why do you do it?

I love kids, plain and simple. I recognize that, as a product of private school learning, I have so much to give to my community with regard to academic knowledge and how to use it as a way to improve the world around us. This gift includes and is most consumed (for me, anyway) by lessons I have learned, good and bad, about the life in a privileged environment. I love how young people see the world, the naivete that their varied experiences bring, and the way that exposures to life outside their “bubble” broaden their scope to reveal passion and identity. I also love the educational environment; I feel comfortable in private education because I am surrounded by like-minded individuals. The various perspectives of my colleagues may not always align with my own, but the beauty inherent inside the ”hows” of education (ie, pedagogy, technology, relationships, etc.) are better shared with those who start from a place of love and responsibility to serving today’s youth in some way, shape, or form.

So, there you have it. What has developed into more of a manifesto than a reflection, I have put to paper my reason for being in education and, specifically, in educational leadership. I hope you have the chance to reflect on your craft as I have today. It’s a refreshing and energizing activity. Please share your thoughts when you do!

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.

ILC #4/5 – Rubrics and Common Vocabulary in Walkthroughs

In creating a framework for an observation program, the IL Challenge curriculum details the danger of building classroom walkthroughs via checklists and itemized reports. Some walkthrough programs include pages upon pages of items to “check off” during an observation session; the glaring problem here is that you may NEVER see an item that is necessary to complete a pre-built walkthrough. The teacher simply may not get to that skill or tool on the one day (hopefully, every two weeks) that you happen to walk into the classroom.

Instead of formulating detailed checklists for a walkthrough, it is better to advise faculty on the general plan you have upon arriving in a classroom. Faculty should know what you are doing as you observe. If you just jump into a classroom unannounced and without a basis for being there, you could cause panic in a teacher, or (more tragically), you could create a scenario where a teacher teaches beyond his/her typical style because he/she is “trying to please.” I know that teachers may act differently when I walk into the classroom…that’s ok. But I would hope they are comfortable teaching at their very best versus creating something that isn’t real.

So the goal of any walkthrough program is to be totally transparent: teachers should know exactly what you are doing when you enter a classroom to observe. I need to do a better job of describing my process, or framework, to the faculty at the beginning of the year. For instance, they need to know that my observation will be followed by a narrative report that has questions I would like them to answer. I know I can’t meet with every teacher after each observation, so they must understand what I expect of them.

In addition to the framework I describe to faculty, I need to express the program with a set of vocabulary that we all can share. If I am speaking with faculty about a walkthrough, the goals that I want them to set, the questions I will ask, and their responses to these questions need to use the same vocabulary so we can lay a foundation for for growth. When two faculty are talking about their goals or a recent walkthrough, they should understand the framework and use the same vocabulary to describe it.

Between framework structure and the vocabulary to build it, an instructional leader can create a united development program within a school where teachers understand what is expected of them and are able to bond together and motivate each other to improve based on these expectations.

Middle School 101: Overtired and Overstressed

A nightmare rears its ugly head all too often from mid August to sometime in early June, aligning very well with the beginning and end of the school year. The scene varies from episode to episode, but one example depicts me in the kitchen preparing dinner. I have chicken on the grill, vegetables on the stove, fries in the oven, and a dining room full of people to serve. However, I can’t get one thing finished without another needing my attention. One thing burns or gets too cold while I focus my attention on the others. The annoyed look on the faces of the diners says it all: I’m working too slow and preparing a sub-par meal. The scene leaves me in a state of panic and stress. I wake up confused, in a sweat, and (worst of all) defeated.

Seems a bit ridiculous, right? Perhaps not. All of these external factors play a major part in our success and sanity. This summer, the teachers in the middle school read a book by Ana Homayoun called The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life. The author pegs three major changes in the environment from when we were students to the world our kids live in now:

  1. Our Changing Academic Landscape: Our students seem to know every little bit about another classmate’s academic successes, and find the a valid source of comparison. They know about national averages or GPAs required to get into University of X and how their grades align to these standards (to three or four decimal places). This knowledge can bear the fruit of stressful and unreachable expectations.
  2. Getting Older Younger: Society expects the 11-13 year old kid to be an adult in social scenes, from how tweens dress to how they interact. But the chemistry of puberty is like a class 5 hurricane with multiple eyes in the storm – just when a calm appears, the storm comes roaring back, toying with emotions, physical appearance, and focus. All the while, our middle schoolers think they must be A students without faltering.
  3. Technology: From ridiculous glamorization of the “shock and awe” presented to our students on YouTube to instant social interactions which sometimes lead to destructive decisions, students are behind the 8-ball when it comes to acting with respect and integrity. Pressing “send” is way too easy, and the implications of actions do not keep up with fast-twitch attacks that students wish they could take back. All too often the sharks are yesterday’s best friend; however, the greatest threat is in the mirror.

Although the social and emotional components of academic success are a disillusioning distraction, these are realities of our children’s lives that they must work around. At this point in their lives, middle schoolers do not have the toolset to see past the distractions. The struggles are viewed as “not fair!” or “completely ridiculous.” Students fall prey to the struggles, making statements like “I’m just not smart,” “no one likes me anyway,” or “it’s just not worth the effort.”

Let’s look at this problem from an adult perspective: In order for you and I to complete tasks at work or at home, we have to think ahead and prioritize to ensure that all of the most important concerns are handled. And so we all must make a choice, and often that choice includes sacrifice. Whether we have to miss the first half of the game on television or give up some other form of personal time, we know that sacrifice is necessary because we can work outside of the distractions life throws at us. Our choices are clear because we have erred in the past and have learned how to avoid problems in the future. Further, we are satisfied with doing what is best, even though that road may not take us to results we had previously hope to reach. These are life-long skills you and I have developed via experience. As your child is now in the middle school, it’s time to help them learn these same lessons.

Below I present two concepts I call “Active Learning Tips.” Taken from a concept developed by Jean Piaget (he called it constructivism), active learning occurs when a mind actively questions, explores, and assesses information as it learns, learns more deeply and more meaningfully.  Active learners take in experiences and information, compare them to previous ideas or experiences, add to or alter beliefs, and construct a personal base of knowledge.

Active Learning Tip #1: The first requirement to helping students beat stress and achieve academically falls on us, the adults in the room. We have to realize one central idea: most students don’t get time management in middle school. They honestly think that since they have two tests tomorrow, afternoon soccer practice, and then a piano lesson they just have to figure out how to do it all. They didn’t think about all these things yesterday (or last week as the case ought to be). They are simply under-experienced and without the toolkit necessary to look up and consistently think ahead. We have to be that guide.

  • Have a conversation with your child about what is coming up this week, and have it again throughout the week. Help them to see the layout of the week with the goal of planning to complete each day with success, not simply to wade through the water. Training is a part of mastery.

Active Learning Tip #2Analyzing homework for gaps in learning (highlighting trouble spots, questions written in the margins, etc.) is the key to having success on a test or quiz. Our young men or women can learn from mistakes and focus on the grades that make the most difference (both for a student’s average and for the teacher to analyze academic development). Our middle school has a goal (note that it is a goal, not a law) of assigning on average about 20 minutes of homework per subject per night. That adds up quick. However, analysis of execution should be a component of that homework effort. This analysis will definitely require guidance.

  • Encourage your child to make a priority list daily before starting homework. Make sure there is time to tackle the big things and that the little things, though deserving of respect, wait for your child’s availability. Even then, sometimes a student simply can’t do it all (and violin…and volleyball…). That has to be ok.

While these are just two examples, there are plenty more just like them. It is my hope that this toolset develops for your child while they are in middle school, and that I can coordinate with you to help them become better learners.


Reference:

Homayoun, Ana. The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life. Perigree, 2013.