Leaving a legacy

Leaving a legacy

In one of my posts from earlier this fall, I wrote about the work we have been doing to set a vision for teaching and learning at Fishers Elementary School. You can check out that post (Setting a vision) if you’d like to know more about the work we’re doing. With our process, one of the things we want to think about is how do we make sure that whatever the vision is, it becomes ingrained as part of what we do. In the book Thrive, Grant Lichtman talks about the importance of both “short-term goals of this generation of students and the longer-horizon challenges that will face those yet to attend.” Lichtman goes on to discuss the value of building a mission and vision that will last long beyond the time that I’m here as the principal.

That’s a heavy idea to think about. I’m a first-year principal. I still feel like I’m just getting my feet wet, and now I’m being challenged to think about what learning will look like here at FES when I’m no longer here? In fact, in the book Lichtman talks about identifying aiming points that reflect the best version of our school in 10 to 20 years.

The reality is that in the world we are living in, change is inevitable, and the change cycle in most parts of the world just keeps moving faster. But change in schools seems to be on a different time scale. There are classrooms that you walk into today that feel and act much like the classroom I was in as an elementary student in the 1980s. We still have a structure to our day that is much the same (arrive, go to class, related arts, lunch, recess, back to class, head home). We are still grouping kids primarily by age, no matter what their variability may be in preparedness for the subjects we’re teaching. (In previous posts I’ve talked about this variability, probably most clearly in this blog: ‘What is the “average” student? Part II’) And for the most part, we still expect students to attend school from kindergarten to 12th grade, and much of what we are doing during that time is to then prepare students to go to college (with little attention paid to students who might not want/need to attend college for the future they have chosen).

So, what are some of the guiding lights that I believe will help to show where we’re trying to go? Three things stand out to me, in no particular order…

  • Integrated Subject Matter – For years in education, we have been putting subjects into their little buckets. There’s math time, there’s reading time, there’s writing time, not to mention all the other subject areas that we learn in school. But the thing is, they all go together. When was the last time you did math just to do math? Yesterday I had to do some math to figure out percentages so that I had data for a meeting I was preparing. That data then went into a report I created, and later talked about while presenting. At FES, we will create integrated learning opportunities for students so that they see that reading, writing, math, and all other forms of learning act in service of one another. We will research models of integrated learning that are working in other schools to create a system that will work for FES.
  • Cross Grade-Level Collaboration – The only times in my life where the majority of the people that I worked with were all the same age as me was during my time as a student in the K-12 classroom. In the real world, I have had colleagues who were older than me, younger than me, and some who were the same age as me. Depending on the context of my career, there are times where I walk into the room as one of the experts on a topic, others where I may be knowledgeable but still have more to learn, and other times still where I am the novice learner. I think that schools, especially elementary schools, could do a better job of differentiating learning for students by working across grade levels. If there is a first-grade student who is capable of working on the same math that a third-grade teacher is teaching, why do we keep them in the first-grade classroom? And if the second-grade class has been doing a lot of research on rocks and minerals, why can’t they share that knowledge with the fourth-grade class that’s about to embark on a unit in geology. Here at FES, we will create the conditions that allow students to learn from one another and with one another, even if they are not in the same class or grade.
  • High-quality project-based learning – Several years ago, while teaching 6th-grade social studies, it was a couple of weeks before winter break and we had reached our unit on Ancient Rome. We had just done a relatively traditional unit on Ancient Greece, and I was not excited to try to do things the same way. I began looking at the materials I had available for our unit, and I noticed that there was information on lots of interesting topics – clothing, games, architecture, food, and so much more. I decided that we were going to do things differently. I spent a day doing a quick introductory activity to the period and geography that we were going to be studying, and then I set them free. Students were challenged to pick whatever topic they were interested in, do some research on it, and then come up with some way to share what they had learned with others. I fully expected at the end that I would end up with a whole bunch of posters with information, or students creating power points, but that’s not what happened. One student asked if she could create a picture book about her topic. Another student wanted to take class time to teach students the popular game that kids played during the time. Another student built a working, scaled-down model of a Roman aqueduct. Another student designed and made an outfit similar to what a child from Ancient Rome might wear. And when we got to the end of the unit and I gave the unit test, average scores were higher than most tests I gave that year. (Reflection: I probably didn’t need to do the test to assess the learning of my students, but in the time I was working, we still had a traditional report card and I needed grades in the grade book – that’s a whole different issue and conversation) At FES, we will create conditions where high-quality project-based learning is the norm when we talk about what learning will look like at Fishers Elementary School.

Along with these guiding lights, we are currently gathering data in the form of a survey from our school community, both teachers and students, to help identify what it is that we value about FES, as well as what might make us even more valuable to our community. These guiding lights will help us to continue to revamp our mission and vision for learning. In the coming months I look forward to working with a team of stakeholders to analyze the responses we have received, finalize our mission, and then begin the task of identifying the strengths we already have as well as the learning we will need to do to continue to grow.

Setting a vision

In my last post, I spent some time talking about the strategies I used to build relationships with the staff of my school after I transitioned into the role of principal of Fishers Elementary School. After spending that time listening to our staff, it was clear that there was a lot of energy, a lot of ideas, and a willingness to grow. But what it seemed was lacking was a clear direction. During an early meeting with the staff, we started talking about the process of building a vision of learning for Fishers Elementary School. We all agreed that there needed to be one, and that it needed to start with each one of us – our beliefs, ideas, and personal passions about teaching and learning.

In order for someone to understand what they are doing, they have to also be really clear on the how and why that goes with that what. Simon Sinek has a book and a TED Talk titled Start With Why (the book is a quick and easy read, or you can check out the talk here). In both, he shares the idea of The Golden Circle. In both the book and the talk, he explains that the people and companies who are the most successful have a really clear definition of their Why, and then work their way out on the Golden Circle. But most companies or organizations start with the what and work their way in. I felt that if we wanted to have a really clear understanding of what we were trying to accomplish at FES, we needed a clear definition of our why.

For our January staff meeting, I planned, then presented my own version of an Ignite session (if you’ve never done this, it’s a 20 slide presentation, where the slides automatically shift every 15 seconds) titled “My Why” (I wrote a post about it a while ago – you can read about it here). I then encouraged everyone to take some time in the coming weeks to think about their own why.

At our next staff meeting, we came together again. It was a chance for us to all reflect on our personal why. I encouraged everyone to sit in a grade level team, and with that team, they had a short amount of time to discuss and define a shared why. We then used a collaborative powerpoint document, where each team created their own slide. The work around defining our why was so important in helping all of us to be really clear on our beliefs about education and learning. It’s the why that drives what we do, not the other way around.

As we were spending time talking defining our why, we also talked about the importance of a shared vision. A Vision for Learning for FES that is written by one person based on their beliefs is not going to be meaningful to all the stakeholders. We started talking about who else we needed to get input from. In these conversations, we knew we wanted the thoughts of our students, we wanted the thoughts or our families, and if possible, we wanted the thoughts of our community. We wanted to make sure that whatever our Vision for Learning was to be included in the ideas of multiple stakeholders.

In February, we were planning to gather the thoughts about learning from our community. It was a couple of days before an upcoming PTO meeting and I was sitting in the conference room with my leadership team. As we were talking, someone pointed at a bulletin board in the room and said “Well, we already have a vision statement right here.” I was floored. “You mean I’ve been here for almost 3 months, and I’ve talked with all of you about developing a vision, and nobody told me that there was already one on a bulletin board?” (OK, maybe my fault for not noticing.)

But what I quickly came to realize is that the vision that was on that bulletin board was nothing but words on a wall to most of the people in the building. They did not feel that the vision that was on the wall accurately reflected them. I’m not exactly sure who all was involved in the writing of that vision, but it wasn’t a shared vision. It didn’t drive the decisions that we made about learning in our building. It was just words on a wall.

To gather some thoughts, we started with 4 questions. Those questions were driven by the book Thrive by Grant Lichtman and included:

We asked these questions first in a staff meeting, and then in our PTO meeting. The thoughts we gathered were so impressive!

These responses were collected during a staff meeting and then a PTO meeting on March 11th. When we collected these thoughts, we did not fully grasp what was about to happen in our world. On March 13th, we let out of school earlier than scheduled for spring break due to concerns about the risks of Covid-19. We taught from home for a week, then had a 2-week spring break during which the governor of Indiana announced that schools would not reopen.

After spring break, we transitioned to what I would call emergency remote learning. It was nothing close to the ideal learning environment for our students. Initially, when this transition happened, I had big plans. I thought we could still do our work on the Vision of Learning for FES virtually. But what I quickly found is that we weren’t ready for that. Most of us were barely able to tread water to meet the learning needs of our students. In January, my goal was to have a well-defined vision for learning before the start of this school year. By April, it was clear we needed to hit the pause button on that work.

So now, I sit here at the start of September. Students start in our building tomorrow. So much of our mental energy has been devoted to the logistics of opening a school in the middle of a global pandemic. But, my assistant principal, our teacher development specialist, and I are once again reading Thrive. In talking through the first section, we all feel like we’re currently at the point where we need to identify our value proposition – what is the thing that makes us valuable to our community? In the coming couple of weeks, I will be working on writing this up for our school community. I’ll share with our teachers, I’ll share with our PTO, and I’ll share it here, to seek feedback on our value at Fishers Elementary School. That will move us one step closer on the path of a clear Vision for Learning.

The Dots on the Line

bayesian-2889576_1280The bell curve. It’s a standard part of the old-school mindset of the Industrial Age of Education. For years, this bell curve concept represented where our students fall. The high point on the curve is seen as “average” and anyone to the left of that point was “below average.” Our goal as educators was to push students over the top of the hill so that they might move into the “above average” category. I’ve written about the concepts of average in a two-part series previously (see Part I here, and Part II here). While there have definitely been some shifts in education, there are times that schools still operate in an industrial age model.

Brief History of TechnologyThe problem with this is that our world has moved beyond the Industrial Age. Much of my lifetime, we have lived in the information age. For those of you who have been around for a while (like me), think about all the things that have come into existence in your life – from the birth of the cordless phone, to the original cell phone to the smartphone, iPad, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Apple Pay, Zoom, Grubhub, Uber – this list could go on! The information age has been all about flattening the ability to gather information. Teachers and librarians used to be seen as the keepers of all knowledge. Today, our students can take out their smartphone or iPad (which both have more computing power than the rocket that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins to the moon) and find any content they need to know.

A few weeks ago I was at our annual administrative retreat (this title makes it sound way fancier than it really was – this year we met in the cafeteria at the high school) and had an awesome session through Zoom (one of those tools I mentioned above!) titled “The Future of Learning, Today” with Jon Landis. Jon currently serves as the National Development Executive for Apple Inc. In his past, he spent time as a teacher, administrator, and assistant professor. There was so much goodness in his presentation. I wish there were a way to share this entire presentation, but I can’t find a way to do that anywhere. If you ever see an opportunity to view this presentation, you should absolutely go for it!

Jon talked about how at Apple they are now beginning to think of the world in a new way – no longer are we in the information age, but we have now shifted into “The People Age.” Historically educators grouped their students and created bell curves, but in the people age, we have to begin looking at the individual dots on the curve, not the curve as a whole. So what does that mean for education? Jon talked about 4 main concepts that affect learning in the people age.

  • Connected
  • Collaborative
  • Creative
  • Personal

Let me expand on each of these ideas:

Connected – In the modern-day learning can happen ANYWHERE! Anytime a student wants to know more, they can pull out their device and “search it up” (as my 8-year-old likes to say). Our job as educators is to help provide equitable access to quality content, anytime, anywhere. This means students no longer need to know it all. Rather they need to have the skills to understand if the resource they are using is providing meaningful and accurate information on the topic they are researching. Since we aren’t the keepers of the knowledge any more, the content isn’t what they seek from us, rather it’s the tools to know if the content is valid.

Collaborative – Our students love to share what they are learning – this is why the share portion of the workshop model is such an important part of the learning process. But another advantage is that when students share, they form relationships, and when they form relationships, they are able to build a stronger understanding and contribute to the world.  Look for ways for students to share their learning in authentic ways and beyond their own classroom walls. I feel my learning has grown and solidified since starting my blog because it forces me to process my learning in a way that I can share with others. How might your students be able to share their learning – could you start a class blog? Share on a class Twitter or Instagram page? Or maybe even on a YouTube channel? Or maybe it’s your students who could manage the blog, social media, or YouTube channel? Could you try to connect with experts in the areas our students are learning about so that students can share their thinking? I don’t know too many people who can choose to ignore an email from a cute elementary student!

Creative – This is where the true agency for our learners comes in! As teachers, we might pick an instructional goal for our students, but then we allow students to be creative in how they show their learning. Some students may choose to write an essay or create a poster, others might create something else. I’ve seen picture books that students created to share their knowledge of the water cycle. I had a student who built a model of a Roman Aqueduct to share what he had learned about Roman architecture. Other students might choose to create a digital presentation or a news broadcast. The choices that students could make are endless – your assessment is on the learning outcomes you are seeking, which means that your assessment tool can be used to assess anything that your students might create.

Personal – This allows students to make choices in their learning pathways. Ultimately we want to help our students develop a desire to learn about the things that are important or interesting to them. This means that no longer is the teacher the keeper of knowledge, rather the teacher may be the curator of a variety of tools and resources that students can choose between to make it to their ultimate outcome. One year as a social studies teacher we were learning about Ancient Rome. Our learning outcome was that students needed to have an understanding of the various aspects of Roman society. I did a brief introductory activity on Ancient Rome, and then let the students do research. They had our textbook, some videos I found, a variety of magazines and books I was able to find in our library, and a list of websites I shared with them. Students were able to pick one of the aspects of Roman society that they were curious about, and then dig in. Not only did a student create a Roman aqueduct, but I also had students who designed and then made their own Roman-style clothing, I had a student who taught others how to play a game that Roman children played, and so much more. The students in my class were able to design their own learning path for this unit, and they learned more about Rome as a whole than if I had taught a unit on Rome in a more traditional style. And my assessment? One basic rubric that involved general knowledge of Roman culture and tied back to our original learning target. My only regret – I didn’t teach like this all the time!

At the close of his presentation, Jon asked us 3 questions to reflect on:

  1. What is your vision for the future?
  2. How is your technology helping you get there?
  3. What if we lean into the realities of remote learning?

No longer do we live in the Industrial Age of education. No longer are we driven by the bell curve. No longer should our thinking be focused on trying to get our students over the top of the curve. In the People Age of education, we need to look at every child in our class and remember that they are a dot on the curve. We meet them where they are. We move them as far as we can while they are in our class. We provide the content, but more importantly, the tools they need to solve problems they are curious about. We help them to define their own learning path within the constraints of our learning outcomes. Because ultimately, not all things work for all learners.

The First-Year Principal

It’s August, and that means it Back-To-School time! In my lifetime, I’ve had 36 first days of school when you combine my years as a student and as an educator. That’s a lot of first days. None of them have prepared me for this year.

You see, this is my first time starting the year as a building principal. I moved into the role last December, but often joke that for all intents and purposes I only had one grading period as the principal, and the first half of that was spent with a map of the school in my pocket so that I knew who was the teacher and which grade level classroom I was walking into. Then came March 13, 2020. We shut down for Covid-19, just like so many others. We went home with the hope that we’d be able to return after our scheduled spring break at the beginning of April, but the Governor of Indiana changed those plans for all of us by closing down all schools for the remainder of the school year.

Beginning in mid-May, those of us who worked in the office were able to return to close out the school year, but there were not teachers on-site, and there were no students. The school was a quiet and dark place most days. Really, it didn’t even feel like school.

During June and July, our administrative team would meet each Tuesday to review our plans for the coming year, work towards reopening, and begin planning for a new school year. We had a reopening plan. I spent my first week back working on schedules for lunch, recess, related arts, all while trying to think about how to keep students appropriately physically distanced. We revamped several aspects of our schedule so that not as many students were entering the cafeteria at the same time. We were thinking about how to map out our hallways so that there would be fewer traffic jams of students. We were registering new students. We were responding to parents who wanted all students to wear a mask at all times. We were responding to parents who never wanted their child to wear a mask.

Then came July 17th – we received word that the school year would be starting virtually in our school district. While the work we had been doing all summer wasn’t a complete waste – we need to have plans for when we are able to open the building – we had to make a quick pivot from the mindset of how to safely open a school to how to start the school year in a virtual setting. As a large suburban district (and like so many other districts all over the country) we are doing something that has never been done on quite this scale – opening public schools in an entirely virtual setting, during a global pandemic, and in a moment of awakening for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Did I mention I’m a first-year principal?

Luckily, I work with an amazing team of educators, and they were up to the task!

As a new principal, when I came into the position, I was walking into a building that I quickly realized needed to take some time to revisit the work of a mission and vision. When I brought this up in staff meetings, nobody mentioned to me that the school had a mission and that it was on the wall outside of the office. That was a sign to me that the mission that was on the wall didn’t have a true meaning.

Through some vision setting activities during staff meetings, in working with our PTO, and working with our school leadership team, some clear patterns arose. In conversations around our building, it was clear that our staff valued three key ideas:

  • Relationships
  • Equity
  • Learning

These three words will guide the work we do all year.

On the first teacher day last week, we opened with a staff community circle. We valued the time to rebuild relationships and community after a school year that was cut short. This was relationship work.

Cornelius Minor (1)On Tuesday we spent the morning in our PLC Teams watching a presentation from Cornelius Minor thinking about how we can “Lean into the idea of possibility” for this school year, and discussing in our PLC teams how we can create equitable learning opportunities for our students even when they aren’t present in our school building. This heart work was so powerful and tied to our beliefs in both equity and learning.

On Wednesday, I spent much of the day meeting with each of our grade-level teams to talk with them about how they were feeling. What questions did they have, what support did they need? While we certainly spent some of our time discussing logistics that people were worried about, I also heard about the thoughts and ideas that each team had come up with in order to build relationships early with their students. I heard ideas they had to provide equity in their learning opportunities. But most of all, I heard a staff that couldn’t wait to see their kids. This was more relationship work and continued work on learning.

In starting a virtual learning school year, our district plan provided us with a unique opportunity that no teacher ever truly gets. On the first two official days of school, our teachers spent the day meeting in an individual Zoom call with each one of their students. By lunchtime of the first day, I had already heard from many of our teachers how great it was to start the year this way. Several were asking if this is something that we could do every year. You see, when else in the first two days of school would you be able to have a 15ish minute long conversation with every one of your students? And when would that time be uninterrupted by the other students in the classroom?

As I write this today, we are in the first week of our true virtual learning schedule. I promise all of you that I would much prefer to have each and every student in our school building every day, but since that isn’t possible we are trying to make the most of the situation we’re in. Every student is participating in reading, writing, and math every day. They will also have their related arts every day. Some of the instruction is coming from pre-recorded videos created by our students, and some of the instruction is coming as live individual/small group instruction on Zoom. And while we are doing this in a way that we have never done before and it feels so much harder than anything else we’ve done, I’m excited by the possibilities that this time will afford us.

And even more so, I am so excited to see the teachers of our school embodying our three words: Relationships; Equity; Learning.

The Intersection of the Soviet Union and COVID-19

IMG_3941This is me when I was in junior high. I know… Great haircut, right?

When I was in seventh grade, I had a teacher named Mr. Courtney. He was my social studies teacher and was truly one of the more interesting teachers that I had in my middle school years. The recent developments with COVID-19 have me reflecting on one of the long-term projects that we did while in Mr. Courtney’s class that year. You see, I was in seventh grade during the 1991-1992 school year. If you don’t remember the time, this is the year of the fall of the Soviet Union.

As a child of the 80s, I remember living through a somewhat constant level of… Fear? (That doesn’t feel like quite the right word now, but I’m not sure what works better). Also, there was some incredible music and hair! Anyway, there was this awareness of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Who knew when things could erupt into a real war? But during the late 80s and early 90s there started to be some changes in the structure of the Soviet Union. Things really came to a head in 1991. This isn’t a history lesson, so I’m not going to go into the details of what I recall from the time.

Mr. Courtney, in a moment of great wisdom, made a decision to pivot with some of our learning. I’m sure that the fall of the Soviet Union was not on his curriculum guide for that year, but world history was. He knew that we were living through a moment of history. As an assignment during that school year, Mr. Courtney had us begin a journaling activity. We were asked to take newspaper clippings from the daily news about what was happening in the Soviet Union, as well as how it might be affecting the rest of the world. Then we were asked to write a journal response each day.

It’s got me thinking about what’s happening right now. All of us are living through a moment of history. What an authentic learning experience to bring into what we’re already doing. (And please understand, I’m trying to be really cautious not to use the phrase “opportunity” because this is a scary time for us all, and that word sounds kind of icky to me given the context of what’s happening around us. Sometimes authentic learning isn’t the topic that we’d ideally choose, and yet we go with it.)

In a team meeting with the fourth-grade teachers at my school, we began talking about an authentic writing assignment of a pandemic journal. Students can write about their lived experiences of this time around COVID-19. Students could share what they’ve learned about the virus. And to go with it, we talked about using resources on newsela as a way to read about COVID-19, viruses, and so much more of what is happening in the world. Here are just a few ideas I had around teaching during this period of COVID-19:

  • Create an informational brochure about viruses. Include ways to avoid spreading the virus, information on how long the virus can live, etc.
  • Have your students write a persuasive letter convincing their neighbors of why they shouldn’t be playing together with their friends right now.
  • Have your students learn about how a disease can spread through some of the amazing graphics from the New York Times here (or any of the other great graphics out there).
  • Have your students record a video showing what they are doing in their own homes to help keep things clean and prevent any potential spread of the virus within their own homes.
  • Have students use Wakelet, or something like that, to curate a list of news items that they find interesting relating to the world around them.

These are just a few ideas that come to mind in the short amount of time I spent thinking about it, but I’m certain that the chances for learning are endless. Here’s the thing, we sometimes get caught in what our curriculum guide says that we “need” to cover. At least here in Indiana, we know that we won’t be giving any standardized tests this year. While I’m not suggesting that we should throw out the curriculum guide completely, we can think critically about our standards and how we might be able to meet the learning goals of our students with a meaningful and relevant learning experience right now.

I still think about the assignment that Mr. Courtney gave us when I was in seventh grade, not because I want to reflect on the fall of the Soviet Union. Rather, I think of it when I want to talk about a model of what it means to be authentic and relevant for our students. I think about it when we contemplate how to be responsive to the world around us.

What things have you done with your class as a result of what is happening in our world now? Have you adjusted your plans? Created learning opportunities for your students that relate to what is happening in the world around us all? Share with us in the comments below a little about what you have tried, or are planning to try.

Time

Today I was sitting in a meeting with colleagues. During the meeting, we had a conversation around the idea of whether we were a person who led through checklists, or if we were one who led through the rally cry mentality. I know that for me, definitely trend towards the rally cry side of things. I like to think about big ideas, about making change happen, about causing good trouble, about being a ruckus maker for the benefit of all the learners in my school (notice the intent of learners – that’s not just students). But the tradition in educational leadership has trended more towards the checklist mentality.

I think that this checklist leadership has led to an education system that relies on their checklists. I think that those checklists are what cause us to pull out the same activities from year to year, not being responsive to our students, not being responsive to the environment around us. It’s why in January we write stories about snow even when there isn’t any snow on the ground, or why we might spend a lesson in science on what a full moon is even though if we were to look at the night sky we might notice that the moon is currently in the new moon phase.

If we operate on checklists, our system is going to stay the way that it is. And here’s the thing… The system as it is can be hard to argue with for some. If you teach in a school that “does well” on the standardized assessment, even though you operate from that checklist mindset, it’s going to be hard to convince you, or your families, or maybe even your students, that there might be a better way to make learning happen.

But I believe there is a better way, because our checklist mindsets create kids who think in checklist ways. But our world doesn’t need checklist thinkers. In a recent article from Forbes (The 10+ Most Important Job Skills Every Company Will Be Looking For In 2020), the following list was shared:

  1. Data Literacy
  1. Critical Thinking
  1. Tech Savviness
  1. Adaptability and Flexibility
  1. Creativity
  1. Emotional Intelligence
  1. Cultural Intelligence and Diversity
  1. Leadership Skills
  1. Judgment and Complex Decision Making
  1. Collaboration

Or you could take a look at the list of Key Attributes that Employers Want to See on Students’ Resumes (click here). This survey, put out every year by National Association of Colleges and Employers, doesn’t list skills that could be achieved by checklist thinking anywhere near the top of their list.

Excitement and CuriositySo, my mindset is that education needs a little bit of a jolt. A swift kick in the behind. Because the system as we know it doesn’t help create students who are prepared for these skills listed above. Not to mention, I’m very fearful of any system where its users enter with excitement and curiosity, and exit feeling bored and disconnected. Visit a kindergarten classroom… After you get past all the hugs and stories, you’ll see learners who are excited to tell you about the littlest details of their curiosity. But somehow, by the time they reach late elementary or middle school, that excitement is mostly gone.

These fears drive me to a lot of conversations with other educators about what schools could be. About what we need to do to create a system that our users exit just as excited as when they enter, but with all the skills listed in the lists above. What’s hard about those conversations – so many of the educators I have those conversations with are checklist thinkers. They have the thing that they do every year because it’s the first month of school, or because it’s almost winter break, or because it’s the middle of winter and no matter what it looks and feels like outside we’re writing our snow stories.

And here’s the thing that drives me crazy. As soon as I start talking about my admittedly crazy ideas, as soon as I share a little bit about what it might mean for us to truly adjust what we do to be more responsive to the day to day needs of our students, and be responsive to the future needs of our society, I almost immediately get one word thrown back at me…

TIME

And I get that, I really do. When we live in a checklist mindset, our most important factor of those checklists is being able to check off the things on the list. And that means we have to do it at the time that we plan on checking it off.

But when I’m talking about change, that means we need to go into design thinking mode. When I say the word innovator, who do you think of? Maybe Einstein, or Edison, Tesla, Jobs, Musk, Wozniak, Gates… Those are the people that we think of as innovators. As we get into a problem-solving mindset for education, I want to remind you of a quote from Einstein that I love:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.”

You see, Einstein got that our ability to solve a problem doesn’t lie in the solution itself. Rather it lies in the ability to appropriately identify the problem. And if you were able to talk to Einstein, or any of the other innovators that I listed above, you’d learn that one of the last things you do in an innovative design process is start to allocate resources.

Time is a resource.

Let me say that again a little louder for the people in the back:

Time is a resource.

And as a resource, it’s not part of our innovative discussions. As educators, there are definitely some resources that we can’t solve. We probably don’t get to pick the location of our school. We typically don’t get to make many changes to the physical building itself. We can’t ignore our state standards of learning. But what happens within the walls, the pedagogical decisions, the allocation of staff, the assignment of students, those are all things that can be adapted. There are schools who have found ways to build regular collaboration time into the school day for teachers. There are schools who have removed a grade-based system, and instead meet each kid right where they are in terms of the instructional decisions that need to be made. Other people have figured out ways to make these innovative things happen. And they didn’t let that pesky issue of time get in the way.

Unless I’m missing something, that 24 hours a day thing is kind of consistent everywhere. Others who have made massive changes to the way they do education don’t have any more time than we do. They’ve just chosen to allocate that resource in a different way. They’ve chosen to change their dispositions, to change their mindsets.

So here’s where I am right now. I’m ready to throw the whole system out on the table. From soup to nuts, what’s not working? What might work better? Let’s try things. Let’s ideate as a staff. What do our kids need in order to be able to leave our building just as curious as the first time they set foot in it. Let’s put it all out there. There’s no such thing as a bad idea. Then, let’s start testing. Just like how SpaceX must test each and every part in order to build a rocket that can do this:

We must be willing to ideate, innovate, test, reiterate, and test again. Eventually we can land our own system that creates students who are ready to leave us with the skills that employers need.

This IS GOING TO BE A MINDSET SHIFT for us all! But I’m on board. I’m ready to start testing, start trying, start building. These kids are too important to not.

Start with why

Why? It’s a question I’m pretty sure I have heard a million times from my son. He’s a super curious kid. Any of you who have kids or have worked around young kids know that why is one of the most important questions in the eyes of a child.

That question of why is the reason that prior to the first opportunity I had to meet with my new staff at Fishers Elementary, I shared Simon Sinek’s TED Talk – How great leaders inspire action. (If you haven’t seen it, you can get to it here)

golden-circleIn this talk, Sinek refers to the Golden Circle. As he describes it, a lot of companies can define what they do, some can even define how they do it, but only a select few can define why. In companies with great leadership, they start with the why.

Think about a corporation like Apple. Ultimately, they are a technology company. But when we think about what made Apple the brand that it is today, it was the complete focus on the fact that they were making beautiful products that fulfilled their customer’s digital needs. They worked the golden circle from the inside out.

So, what’s the reason that so many of the companies that start with defining their why in the first place end up being so successful? I think a lot of it comes from that childhood sense of wonder we all have. Intrinsically I think all humans are wired to be curious beings. We all want to understand the why. Sometimes we don’t even recognize that is what we need. I can’t remember who said it, but they told me if you really want to understand a person’s thinking, keep asking the question why. When you get to the 7th why, you probably have a pretty good grasp on where the person is coming from.

So, Sinek’s TED Talk now has me thinking. In the notes app on my phone I now have a note titled My Why. Currently there are 13 bullet points in this list. I hope to work on it and refine it some, because I plan to share my why with my staff at the next staff meeting. Then, we’re going to work together on first identifying our own personal why for what we do, and then work together to build a shared why. The purpose behind this activity will be to build a vision for what Fishers Elementary stands for moving forward.

I’m excited about the work that this will entail. And I’m ready to take my time. We are not going to walk out of our next staff meeting with our mission and vision, rather we are going to be working on this throughout the next semester. It is my hope that by the end of the school year, we have gathered input from our teachers and staff, from our students, from our families, and from our community.

It’s an exciting time to be a Tiger! I’ll be sure to keep you all updated on the process!

Take it up a notch

Take it up a notch

I was at a training last week and the presenter stated the following:

“When we stretch (students) brains beyond the baseline, they will be prepared for the baseline.”

It struck me because every year I hear statements like “This group can’t handle that because they don’t yet have the basic skills.” As teachers, we sometimes believe if students don’t have the base level skills, we can’t move into project work, or more hands-on assignments. We feel the need to make sure that our students had those base level skills first.

When I was in the classroom, I had points in time where I felt that way. For the majority of my career as a classroom teacher I taught 5th and 6th grade science. As a kid, I loved science! It was a hands-on subject, and that suited me well. I’ve never been one who learned well by being talked at, instead I needed to do something to help that learning to stick. Science was great for that. I remember building different styles of rockets in elementary school to investigate flight. I also remember days in elementary school of “creek stomping” in the creek that ran behind our school looking for fossils and learning about rocks and minerals. In high school, I remember spending hours in the chemistry lab making solutions and testing what would happen if you added X to Y. And in physics I remember using a laser to make my own hologram of a six-sided die. Those hands-on activities were the parts of the content that stuck with me over time. Science was awesome!

Once I moved into the classroom, I was excited to bring those awesome experiences to my students. Early in my career though, I think I may have lost my way. You see, I was of the impression that for my kids to be ready for a lab or project work, I had to make sure they all had the conceptual knowledge first. So, we’d spend time building that conceptual knowledge. What I didn’t realize completely at that time is that it’s really hard to build conceptual knowledge from taking notes, drawing diagrams, and watching video clips. True conceptual knowledge comes from the hands-on experiences that students do. Unfortunately because of the amount of time it took to learn that conceptual knowledge, sometimes we wouldn’t get to the fun stuff.

One year, I was teaching one enriched science class, and several classes that were not enriched. My students in the non-enriched classes started asking me why they didn’t get to do the fun stuff, and it caused me to pause and reflect. That year I worked on reorganizing the way I did my lessons. I started placing my lab activities and hands-on learning experiences at the beginning of each unit. What I found was that students seemed to do better in class when they had done a hands-on activity prior to teaching the conceptual skills. And as an added bonus to me, we often didn’t have to spend as much time on those concepts, because students had gained a greater understanding during the hands-on learning activities.

The same is true and other subject areas too. When we create math lessons that allow students to draw and visualize their thinking, they will better understand the concepts that go with what they are doing. When students look for grammatical structures within their own reading or writing they are more likely to value the importance of those grammar skills than when they work off of a grammar review sheet.

What I’m beginning to realize about the innovative work we are doing in education is that whether we call it project work, project-based learning, or something else, every time we take the learning up a notch our students are able to accomplish that much more. And I understand that sometimes we freak out about doing something innovative in our classroom because we may not feel like we are experts in the technology that goes with that activity. As teachers we don’t need to be the technology experts, rather we need to be the pedagogy experts. I know for a fact that no one taught me how to use Facebook or Twitter or many of the other apps that I use on a regular basis, rather I figured it out by clicking on stuff and seeing what happened.

So, what are some of the ways that we can have our students actually take it up a notch? What if every 10 to 15 minutes you pause what’s going on in class and have the kids record an audio or video reflection of what they have been learning? What if you have them create a photo or image or meme that represents their learning in class thus far? What if you asked them to sketch out a picture that shows a solution to the math problem they are working on? Each time we do something like this we are forcing our students to stretch their brains beyond that baseline and I would argue we aren’t doing anything that is that difficult. When we ask our students to do a drawing or create a video of their learning in class, we are helping them with their summarizing skills. I would also say that those small moments of creation help our students to develop one of the most in demand skills in the job market: creativity.

expected skills

I challenge you to look ahead at something that you are planning to do with your students in the next couple of weeks. Identify an activity that you would typically start with conceptual knowledge and find a way to do it hands-on in the first place. See how your students react. Weave in the conceptual skills that they need as you go through the project. Then take some time to reflect. Do the students end up with a better conceptual understanding of the topic? It may take a try or two but in time hopefully we can integrate more of those skills that are expected in the workplace into the things that are happening in our classrooms.

So, what activity have you selected? Share with us in the comments below so that we can check in with you to see how it goes.

Experimental teaching in progress

The beginning of the school year is exciting for a lot of different reasons, but in the past couple of weeks I have been really fired up by the beginning of the year goal setting meetings I’ve been having with our teachers. It’s been so exciting to hear about the goals that teachers are setting to push themselves to new learning experiences and create amazing opportunities for their students. It’s a lot of fun to talk with them about their ideas and how to create a goal that will truly impact their teaching and learning throughout the year.

One of the things about learning new things, we all need to reflect on our learning. It’s a part of that learning cycle, and I look forward to the opportunity to help our teachers reflect on their goal throughout the year. But in addition to reflection, we also need feedback from others on how we are doing. When I think about my most powerful learning experiences, there has always been someone there to provide feedback – let me know what I was doing well and where I needed to improve. That feedback may have come from my coaches on the basketball court or football field, or it may have come from a teacher or professor in the classroom.

I respected the feedback that I would get from my elders, but sometimes the best feedback came from my teammates and classmates. They could often connect with me in ways that an adult just wasn’t able to. Even today, some of my most trusted people are peers who are in similar positions as mine. It’s so great to make a call or send an email to someone that I trust, share my thinking, and get their feedback. While there are definitely times that I hear “You seem to be right on track”, there are times they have said “You might want to think about that a little more and here’s why.” It helps me so much to get that peer feedback.

The problem with this in teaching is that we often live in our own silos. What happens in our classroom is often invisible to our colleagues, whether they be across the hall, on another floor, or in another wing. So what do we do about that? Luckily there are awesome people out there on Twitter who help us find solutions to our problems. This week I saw a tweet from Jed Dearybury that took me to his newsletter “A Dearybury of a Day”. (You can – and should – follow Jed on Twitter here). At the very end of the newsletter was this Fab, Fun, Freebie:

Screen Shot 2019-09-20 at 7.09.04 AM

Here’s what Jed said about this sign:

Whenever you are trying something new with students, hang this sign on your door to let those passing by know you are experimenting with a new teaching strategy. When this sign was on my door, it always made me relax a bit more because sometimes, experiments fail, and that’s ok!

So, here’s a thought – What if every time you are trying something new and you want to have feedback, you could hang this sign outside your door? What if you sent an email to the staff at your building with a picture of the sign? What if you shared the sign on Twitter (and tagged @mrdearybury)? There would be an awesome opportunity for people to come and watch what you are doing and give you meaningful feedback on what they saw. I know that many of us feel a little uncomfortable when we have other adults observing what we’re doing in our classroom, but we aren’t living on the growing edge when we’re totally comfortable in what we’re doing.

Remember, we’re all in this together guys! Our goal is to support the students we see on a daily basis, and the best way I can think of to do that is to support one another in our own teaching and learning. I’ll include a link to the pdf that Jed shared below.

So what are your thoughts? Are you comfortable to use a sign like this? I’d love to see some pictures being shared throughout your building!

Want to download the poster? Click here!

Is yet enough?

I was listening to a recent episode of the Making Math Moments that Matter podcast, which has become one of my new favorite podcasts (you should check out their website here for lots of awesome math resources and links to their podcast or check them out on Twitter @MakeMathMoments). There are tons of great ideas packed into every episode, and their back catalogue includes interviews with some amazing math educators! In a recent episode (episode #39 with Alice Aspinall) they got started talking about the language we use when talking about growth mindset.

For a long time now, we’ve been talking about the concept of growth mindset in many different formats. One of the things we’ve talked about (it was even our school hashtag recently) is The Power of Yet. Our discussions centered around the idea that people who have a growth mindset will say something like “I haven’t mastered this skill, yet.” By adding that yet, we were implying that it was something that we were still working on. It’s a powerful statement to remind ourselves that we have room to grow.

On several occasions I’ve had the thought that simply adding the yet to the end of the sentence didn’t do quite enough, but I couldn’t quite explain what was lacking. Then I listened to Alice Aspinall talking about her book Everyone Can Learn Math (find it here). In the course of the conversation she shared the following quote:

You could say I'm not good at multiplying yet, but that's kind of basic, right_ Can we change is so that we're saying I have not yet learned to multiply, but I've been practicing with arrays._

 

 

It suddenly clicked with me. I think the fear I have about simply adding the word yet to the end of a statement is that we may be modeling a false growth mindset. Does saying yet help teach someone how they get to success? I don’t think that it does. By articulating how you’re going about it, you suddenly change the game to be focused on learning and Multiplication Arraygrowing. Growth mindset can’t just be about saying that we aren’t there yet. It’s saying that we’re on a path to get there. By adding a statement of what you’re doing to get there, you have that path in place. In the quote above, a student is saying they are going to use arrays to help them better understand how to multiply. That’s a specific direction and provides specific action.

As a teacher, we can really work on our language, and modeling the idea of having a path to success in the things we say. If a student says that they aren’t good at something, or that they don’t like something, you can certainly help them learn to add the yet, and help them to begin to think about what steps they take in order to become successful.

It’s the same thing that we are doing when we set our own SMART Goals. We set attainable, realistic goals with the short-term and long-term steps we plan to take. By helping students set attainable, realistic goals with a plan in sight, you will help your students to be better able to set their own goals.

So what are your thoughts? Do you talk about growth mindset in your class? Have you seen students mindset change with the addition of the word “yet” in their beliefs about their abilities? Do you think adding a direction to those statements might make them more powerful? I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections in the comments below.