Friday, August 26, 2011


                Thank you.
                I mean, thanks for reading this blog. Seriously. With all the media vying for our attention all the time, you have gifted me with some of your mental bandwith. I’m honored, humbled, and appreciative.
                I wanted to say that right away because lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the notion of gratitude, and I realized that I’ve never thanked my readers except for those who have spoken to me around school or left some of the few comments. (Hint, hint.) That’s not right. So thank you. And now maybe I won’t appear hypocritical in the coming rant since I offered myself as Exhibit A.
                I fear that as a culture we’ve lost a strong enough sense of gratitude. Sure, we still offer the mannerly thanks that come with social niceties. I’m talking about a deep sense of gratitude, one that manifests itself in the way we live our lives each day. Instead, I see more and more people who seem frustrated when things aren’t just as they want. I’m sure you can think of examples, and I know I’m guilty also. (For a hilarious take on this, you might want to watch Louis CK’s “Everything’s Amazing, Nobody’s Happy.” I’d embed it, but parts push the envelope a bit, so it’s your choice. Thanks to Jonathan Martin of St. Gregory’s in Tucson for leading me to it.)
                Among other reasons, the video is one of the things that prompted me to start reflecting on this topic. Recently I’ve been very grateful for certain things (read flood posts 1 and 2). I’ve witnessed a few beautiful expressions of gratitude. Sadly, I’ve seen some of just the opposite. I began to wonder if I do a good enough job of expressing my thanks to people, and to fear I take too much for granted.
                I have my own theories on why our culture has become this way. We’ve become a microwave age, accustomed to instant nourishment and gratification. Much of the media of modern technology encourages narcissistic behavior; and while it raises the possibilities for amazing discourse and moving towards collective wisdom, too often it becomes polarizing vitriol. It’s as if we have to build ourselves up by knocking down others. Socially, economically, materially, whatever-ally—we feel immense pressure to keep up and assert ourselves and feel affirmed and right. And so much of it is very public.
                More than anything, I think we’ve lost a sense of perspective—one that recalls how much is really quite good for many of us. It’s as if we would go to buy a bar of Ivory Soap and focus on the .56% which isn’t pure. None of us is owed perfection. And if everything were perfect, then what would we appreciate? After all, as I once heard Arlo Guthrie point out at a concert, you can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.
                I think gratitude is also one of the most important qualities we can try to help young people have. Anytime I engage in some sort of Portrait of the Graduate exercise, it’s always one of the first things I think of for the “Attitudes” column. Service learning, chapel, certain essential questions, social-emotional curricula—schools can address this in many ways. I also like to remind students that just through the lucky circumstances of their birth, they are in the top 5% of humankind in terms of wealth, health, security, and potential. That’s not a bad starting point. To help them maintain this advantage, their families have given them myriad opportunities.
                It strikes me that people who feel a deep gratitude are happier. They are more content, more at peace. They focus less on what’s missing. They have a true sense of meaning and purpose driving their lives. It’s not that they see the glass as half full. They realize, as a student once told me, the glass is always full. Even if there is no liquid, it’s full of air, that most vital substance.
                I also believe that gratitude is contagious, and I encourage you to start an epidemic. Think about all for which you are grateful. Your talents, your blessings, certainly. But, most of all, the people. And don’t stop there. Let them know. Surprise them with an expression of your gratitude. Just something small and heartfelt. A call or a note. And tell them why. Try genuine words.
                Thanks much for reading. And I’ll be even more grateful if you share your thoughts.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Teacher's Epic Failure

                I’m having trouble figuring out exactly how to approach this particular blog post. I feel very compelled to write on this topic, but I’m muddling through such a mélange of thoughts and emotions on the topic, ranging from total outrage to deep empathy. It particularly galls me that I’m moved to write this post by an article I came across on the first day of school, when idealism and the belief in possibility flow more than any other day of the school year. The article is from a publication focused on the Philadelphia public schools, and it is a veteran teacher’s explanation of why she helped her high school students cheat on the state tests.
                Some of the teacher’s actions include:
-    Answering students’ questions;
-    Pointing to the part of a passage where an answer could be found;
-    Giving students definitions of unfamiliar words;
-    Discussing reading passages students didn’t understand;
-    Commenting on students’ writing samples;
-    Pointing to correct answers to difficult questions.

Why? She has several explanations. The teacher said most of her students were reading well below grade level, poorly prepared, unable to relate to the middle-class content of the tests, and had major challenges in their lives. She considers herself a good teacher and wishes she could have found a way to address students’ deep-seated academic deficiencies and the troubling school culture that she believes was created by high-stakes testing. According to her, school administrators did nothing to stop “constant” and “widespread” cheating, even mandating certain protocols against the legal guidelines. She claims that teachers who questioned the system were coerced into cheating: “My only defense would be that I lost track of what was right because it was so stressful to be there… It’s easy to lose your moral compass when you are constantly being bullied… I was someone I didn’t recognize by the end of my time there.”
At various points in this blog I’ve written about my concerns with standardized testing, mainly as a very limited and limiting tool. I’ve talked with enough public school educators to understand the pressures they feel because of the state testing. Cheating scandals have erupted in 22 states and D.C. I know I would hate working in such circumstances. I’m trying to walk in this teacher’s shoes. I get what she is saying, and I really do feel for her…to a point. But then my outrage erupts again. At the risk of seeming sanctimonious, all I can say is, “Really?!? Give me a break.”
I want to give this teacher the benefit of the doubt, at least when it comes to her motivation. One article I read on the case says, “She considers herself a good teacher and wishes she could have found a way to address students’ deep-seated academic deficiencies and the troubling school culture that she believes was created by high-stakes testing. Instead, she took another route.” Perhaps she felt she had no other choice except to engage in what she called “self-styled subversion.” But we always have a choice to do what’s right. We may just not like some of the consequences of taking that stand.
There are two ultimate ironies to the story. I like to take the first as another sign of cosmic justice—that perhaps the teacher’s accusations are actually false alibis. The district is investigating 28 schools because of suspicious results on the 2009 tests. This teacher’s school is not among them.
The second irony captures so many of the issues raised by the story.  It’s much sadder. The teacher says, “I wanted them to succeed, because I believe their continued failure on these terrible tests crushes their spirit… I wasn’t willing to say, ‘Just do your best.’ They were my students, and I wanted to be there for them.” The article doesn’t say how the students did on the state tests. In some ways it doesn’t matter since the results are so tainted. Plus what those students really learned—the lesson that is going to stick—is that their teacher helped them to cheat. So they may have “passed” the state test, but their teacher failed a much larger one.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Happy New Year!

             Happy New Year!
             Few events bring with them as much positive energy as the start of a new school year. Schools are nice enough places in the summer, but they lack their essential buzz until the students return. They are, after all, why educators do what they do. The students see nothing but possibilities in the year ahead. And for the parents, the start of the school year is when all their hopes and dreams for each of their children crystallize in visions of amazing growth.
              To bring about such growth, schools need to provide plenty of opportunities for appropriate challenges. These stretch the students and encourage them to take risks. It’s all necessary to help them gradually develop mastery and autonomy. The process, when done well, helps the students to grow in confidence. At that same time, it inevitably brings stumbles, setbacks, and perhaps even failures.
              Our reaction as adults—whether as teachers or parents—often determines how the child deals with life’s tougher moments. We can try to help them put things in perspective, offer words of wisdom, point out the positives, et cetera. However, digging beneath even the most laid-back demeanor can unearth some natural anxiety.
              I recall my own concerns regarding my children when it came to two key developmental milestones—walking and reading.
              I wondered if my daughter, Kate, ever would walk. All the other kids in her play group were walking; the child across the street had started walking at an early age. Plus she showed no real interest in walking. Once Kate decided to give it a go, she didn’t exactly take right to it. Finally, when she was 16-1/2 months old, my wife called to tell me Kate had taken off running. The past two years she ran cross-country.
              I also worried that my son, Stephen, would have problems with reading. My concern arose because he has severe hearing loss, and there is a link between that and reading difficulty. Even though he proceeded pretty much on schedule, with each miscoded word I would draw a quick breath. He figured it all out rather quickly, as his teachers told me he would. Now Stephen reads a great deal, and he reads with unusual insight.
              In retrospect, while my anxiety was perhaps normal, it also was misplaced in many ways. Neither of my children had given any actual signs that they were not going to reach these milestones. And I certainly never gave up on them. Imagine if the first time Kate had pulled herself up and taken those initial, faltering steps, only to keel over…and I just decided, “That’s it. She’ll never walk.” Instead, at those times we keep encouraging, prodding, celebrating…confident in the knowledge the child will walk. Now I can even laugh about it, seeing it as a sign of intelligence. After all, I imagine her thinking, why walk when people are willing to carry you everywhere?
              I encourage you to keep the walking metaphor in mind through the year. Revel in all the myriad successes, and try to see rough patches for what they are. As one of my mentors keeps telling me about being a head of school, “Take the long view.” I try to do that as a parent also.
              Enjoy all the wonders of the new school year. There aren’t that many of them before your kids leave home. But there are enough of them for your kids to learn what they need to become wonderful young adults.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Drying Out

Many people have been quoted on the topic of people responding to challenges. They all seem to touch somehow on the general topic of resiliency and community, ideas that certainly underlay my last post on the flood our lower school suffered. As we recover from this challenge, two things have struck me about myself as a leader. First, I didn't realize how much of a control freak I can be--not about minutae, but about generalities. I say that because it's driving me absolutely crazy that I can do absolutely nothing to fix this situation on my own. All I can do is try to reassure people, to make sure we're on track, to adjust as the situation changes--but I can't do the real work of repairs. Second, I like to pride myself on the fact that I don't get too wigged out about anything. But "the flood" is somehow always on my mind and keeps me from focusing totally on other things I need to be doing.

Let me back out for just a second to provide a bit of context. When I've spoken to some people, they haven't grasped just how much water we had in the building. It covered the floor of our lower school, some office space, part of our library. In places it was at least an inch deep. When I first saw the building last Friday, I couldn't begin to guess at the extent of the damage. I didn't think there was any way we'd be ready for school to open on August 23rd.

But it looks like we will be...and here come the real points.

For the last week I have watched true experts at work. They came in a knew exactly what to do, and they did it quickly and efficiently. The lower school ended up resembling some sort of laboratory, as you can see in these pictures:

They had blowers, desiccant machines (the big silver things in one of the photos), tubes snaking everywhere, machines to measure moisture and to check for mold and mildew.

The result? It's amazing. A week later, and it's almost bone dry. We lost several boxes of supplies, and a great deal of sheetrock had to be cut several inches above the floor. The base of extensive millwork was damaged and must be replaced. But the carpeting is fine and the damage is much less than we all had feared. Most importantly, there are no signs of any mold or mildew, so the air will be safe for everyone here.
As they're slowly removing and shifting the drying equipment, another team of experts has come in--people replacing the sheetrock and getting ready to deal with the millwork. I'm amazed how quickly they have been able to patch walls.
Watching these workers has made me think hard about what we ask students to do in school. These experts are putting all their training and experience to work in a meaningful, important fashion. Talking to the, I can tell how sincerely they take their mission of helping people recover from damaging situations. It is the latest evidence for me of why I believe schools need to be integrating more and more project-based learning and service learning. Students needs opportunities to show all the great things they can do, and they need to feel that it matters. Given those chances, students often provide wonderful surprises.
Soon these experts will be done with their work. Then another set of experts will move in--all the people of St. John's who are expert at community. I can't wait to roll up my sleeves alongside them.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

In the Abundance of Water

“In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty.”
--Bob Marley, “Rat Race”

Yesterday I arrived at my office around twenty minutes later than usual because I had to drop my kids somewhere. I also was a bit more dressed up than my typical summer attire because of some important meetings. Right when I sat at my desk, my cell phone rang. My facilities director.

“Mark, are you coming in today?”

“Already here,” I replied.

“Please come down to the lower school.”

A flood. Water covered the floor of the entire lower school and part of the library. In some places the water had puddled nearly an inch deep. Because it’s summer, many of the supplies—including those newly-purchased and recently delivered—were on the floor rather than sorted and put away. Immediately my head filled with questions. First, how?* Natural, but foolish question, because it really didn’t matter right then. Next, what are all the implications? Insurance, amount of damage, in-service schedule, replacing materials, opening of school—once again, natural but at that point foolish. Until the clean up began and the situation was assessed by professionals, I couldn’t do anything about any of those other points.**

What happened next is what slaked my fool’s thirst.

We sent a phone blast to employees to let them know what had happened.*** Within thirty minutes, the building was packed with people who had arrived to help. And not just employees. There were students, from second graders through seventh graders. There were new employees who hadn’t even worked in the school yet. Employees brought family members—spouses, their grown children. Our new second grade teacher had her two younger sisters and her parents there. Our seventh grade science teacher’s massive adult son—a former marine who’s between jobs in Alaska and Antarctica—was tossing around classroom furniture. I saw a parent methodically working a wet-vac.

What were others doing? They were using squee-gees and brooms to push water towards drains. They were figuring out where to move things. They were moving hundreds of things—ranging from tiny boxes to large tables to even a cast iron bathtub—so that the restoration company could get right to work. I saw wisps of little girls with their arms full, toting things to dry rooms. They were assessing what could be saved and documenting what needed replacement. And despite all of the damage and the hard work and the looming questions, they were doing all this with smiles and laughter and optimism.

By around 12:30, we had finished what we could do, and we had to move aside to let the experts take over. I had asked my assistant to order some food for everyone, and people filled one of the workrooms to eat. They had busted their tails, and they thanked me so sincerely for the food; they genuinely believed I didn’t need to do that. It sounds hokey, but I truly was humbled. From my perspective, providing a bunch of quesadillas was the least I could do. They had given so much of themselves that morning. Not just their physical labor, but their hearts and souls.

They reminded me once again about the incredible community of St. John’s Episcopal School. (Plus that evening some parents e-mailed me to say they were ready to organize help for all the teachers.) I can only imagine how glad the new faculty were to see what type of place they had joined, and I imagine people loved to see the new folks already have that same spirit. It’s how they work with kids every day—with the same determination and purposefulness and love. I remembered that great schools depend on the people there.

I’m still worried about all the immediate concerns that filled my brain. But now I don’t feel quite as foolish because of what I re-gained through the day. I recall educational writer Parker Palmer’s oft-quoted line “You teach who you are.” The people of St. John’s Episcopal School are deep wells, from whom we can drink abundantly and fulfillingly.

*In case you’re interested, the plumber theorizes that a valve broke when the city turned the area’s water back on after working on some local mains the evening before. He said when they do so, trash in the pipes can hit the valve with so much force that it breaks it.

**I imagine I also looked quite the fool. I had removed my loafers and socks, and rolled up my slacks. As we worked, my button-down shirt quickly soaked through. I felt pretty gross also. But it made a good opening for my meetings.

***I intentionally leave out names in the following section. I’m afraid I’m going to miss someone, and I am truly grateful for and humbled by what I’m about to relate.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Questions for Tech Leaders

Lately I have found myself wondering what Socrates would have done with modern digital technology. Blogging probably wouldn’t be for him, and Twitter doesn’t really allow for sustained, ever deepening dialogue. (Some may disagree, but I’ve never grasped the Twitter culture.) I imagine Socrates as part of a chat room or on-line forum, advancing the discussion with all sorts of pointed questions.

While much of school rolls along as it has for over a century, certainly much has changed with technological innovations. Enough? Probably not. Certainly not if you were to ask most of the leading technology advocates in education. For them, things can’t change enough, and sooner rather than later.

Why haven’t they? Well, there are many reasons, many of which simply deal with the nature of change. Schools seem especially resistant, the reasons for which would take several more posts to examine. But when it comes to technology, I have some questions for educational technology leaders that I hope they take as suggestions. And understand they come from someone who loves his gadgets.

• Why do you claim that you can see the future? We’re told all the time that we need to do certain things because of how the world is going to be when our students become adults. I’ve certainly been guilty of that argument. But we don’t know about a few years from now, let alone a generation. I think claiming too much foresight doesn’t add credibility; instead, it creates skepticism. I think this approach is also what leads to an obsession with the latest, greatest tools rather than helping students developing transferable skills and understandings. It also creates a spiraling black hole when it comes to technology budgets.
• Why do you use such extreme examples to prove your case? We hear all the time about the kid who created a blog that went viral, or about the massively successful business tycoon who was dyslexic and/or dropped out of school yet made it big. Those are incredible exceptions. Possible, yes—but very, very unlikely. Let’s try to focus on what technology can do for every student.
• Why do you tell us that we should use technology because that is “the world kids live in”? Hmmm. Once they reach a certain age, most kids want to keep certain parts of their world clear from adults. But that’s not really my point. And we’re being remiss in our professional responsibilities if we don’t arm them with the tools. But an incident in my class a couple of years ago made me rethink this point. I’ve always tried new ways to approach courses, often using technology. Some students approached me and said, “Mr. Crotty, we think it’s great you try all this stuff, but we live in it all the time. At school we want a more human connection.”
• Why do you resort to denigration of other educators who aren’t on the technology train? Yes, I believe all educators need to keep learning and to use technology to some degree. But I don’t believe a teacher can’t have a great, important impact on a student without using technology. Ask kids who their best teachers were. They point to those who loved and nurtured them and created dynamic learning environments.

Therein lies the real reason for using digital technology—done right, it helps to promote student empowerment that heightens learning. Without becoming bogged down in examples, this occurs in four areas:

• Creative expression—From the now taken-for-granted power of word processing to video production to blogging, technology provides a spectrum of options for students to find their unique voices.
• Connection—Students can connect with peers and area experts in ways never before possible.
• Curiosity—Students can pursue their interest, and they can make discoveries based on both passion and serendipity. They are no longer bound to a superficial textbook.
• Critical Thinking—Maneuvering throughout the digital world necessitates exercising critical thinking skills.

I know those who have done successful work involving technology could add other categories, and that would be awesome. In fact, that really lies at the crux of my argument and advice.

The real key is not advocating technology first. The issue is advocating for students. That’s the bottom line, and it should also be the starting point. Zero in on how technology can help teachers to serve them. After all, once you move past the urgent pleas and the defensiveness, we all want the same things for our students.

One final suggestion. Please stop calling them 21st Century Skills. They are not. Educators for centuries have advocated them. Socrates certainly did. He’d ask you some pretty tough questions.