Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Move Out of the Way, and Be Delighted

     Recently Lauren Bush, an eighth grader at St. John's, won the USA Network and R&R Partners Foundation's Flip the Script Unite Against Bullying Commercial Challenge. This allowed her to be part of the creation of a public service announcement based on her original video:

We're incredibly proud of Lauren and the immense quality of her work, along with the poignant message. No surprise the video is going viral. She deserves all the attention and accolades.
     It's also important to consider the circumstances that allowed Lauren to create the video, as I believe they hold vital lessons for how education can function at its best. It was a first trimester film elective, and the students had a "simple" charge: create an inspirational video. Lauren then created "Word Play."
     Let's examine what the teacher did and didn't do. He gave the students the very basics of film-making and let them play with each of them. They had a powerful tool (we're a 1:1 iPad school) that made the filming and editing process easy, meaning the students could focus on the creative aspects of the project. The assignment was specific and broad at the same time, and no rubric confined their ideas. He set them up for success...then moved out of their way. Finally--and this probably is the most important point--he believed in the students and their ability to delight us. To push what too many teachers see as impossible.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Too Much? Not Enough? Musing on Tuition

     As head of an independent school, when I hear certain types of complaints, I've come to expect some variation on a theme: this is not what we are paying for. One common twist is that parents pay "too much" for whatever the issue is. Sometimes parts are in all caps, just to drive home the point.
     As a parent with two children at a very expensive school (not the one I head), I completely understand. I readily admit I have felt the same sentiment. It's driven largely by the fact that we trust independent schools with our two more precious resources--our kids and our cash.Sometimes the parental concerns are fully justified, making the reaction even more understandable. So what follows is not really a rant against such expressions, though it may come across that way in places. I hope this gives people some more to think about in the entire value-added conversation.I also think this raises important notions for families to consider during re-enrollment season. Too often that can become an automatic action. Given how much and how quickly kids change, particularly at certain points in their development, a once-good fit may no longer be the best place for a student. Even if there are no reasons to question the fit, parents should reflect on what drew them to the school in the first place. I would hope it comes back to issues of mission, values, culture, et cetera. That's not to say parents shouldn't feel outraged when particular experiences fall short of their expectations. They should. And I share the feelings. But I also don't think of the problem in the same way.
     The truly meaningful parts of an education aren't commodities and thus cannot be monetized. Even if they could, throwing more money at something doesn't guarantee better. For example, Finland--currently the hot educational system in the world--spends much less per student than the United States, about $7800 versus $11,300. Meanwhile, another nation with very high rankings, Estonia, spends roughly the same percentage of GDP per capita as the United States. Meanwhile, their systems function in different ways in different cultures with different aims. Therefore, the stats and the finances can prove misleading and fail to provide accurate, insightful comparisons.
     That's why, to me, many of the issues which most irk parents--that is, when they are rightly upset--are matters of professionalism and shirking of responsibility. For me, they become not a failure to deliver on a business transaction but more of an ethical transgression. I see education as a truly sacred trust, especially in independent schools, which hold forth mission as the ideal to which we aspire. Not doing the work which honors that is an ethical violation.
     But for the sake of argument, let's return to the gambit cited in the opening: the notion of "paying too much for something." It's a real sentiment based on a genuine emotion, so I won't dismiss it. Plus tuition at most independent schools is high. Still, the contention of paying too much for certain behaviors can fairly be flipped. Given the relative level of the average teacher's salary* and the importance of the work, are there certain things for which people don't pay enough?
  • Independent schools are filled with talented, quality people who could be making much more money elsewhere; but they chose to live a life of service...and your kids get to spend a great deal of time with them.
  • Many of these people drain themselves during the day--imagine yourself surrounded by dozens of children all day--then give even more at night. Besides planning lessons, many of them are searching the web or engaging in Twitter chats or doing other things to improve their craft.
  • They stand outside in freezing cold or driving rain, making sure kids are safe during carpool.
  • A teacher may have to discipline a child one moment, then gives that child a special task to show that all is forgiven.
  • They know how to comfort a child when parents are fighting or a friend is mean or a pet had died, because school is a warm blanket.
  • When children are crowded into safe areas taking shelter for two hours because tornadoes are racing through the area, teachers help them pass the time while feeling secure.
  • A teacher might spend well over an hour on a single letter of recommendation, determined to present that student in the best possible light.
  • Teachers who are willing to share realistic but hard news about a child, doing so with empathy and reassurance, in a way that makes a parent believe it all will be okay.
  • The advisor who brings a thermos of hot chocolate when his or her group has carpool duty on chilly mornings.
  • The teacher who is determined to help a student understand a concept, and keeps finding news ways to explain it, until it clicks.
  • Receiving a phone call or an email not when your child has done something wrong, but when he or she has been great.
  • The adult who remembers what it's like when the insecurities of middle school hit and helps a student keep imagining that sense of a magnificent self, along with the confidence he or she can become just that. In fact, is already that.
  • The person who gives your child someone worth emulating.
At a great school, a quality classroom experience is simply a given. An expectation which should be the norm. This list--and I've see each one of these things, often several times--are the lagniappe. More than that, they are, to play off the old MasterCard commercial, that which makes the experience priceless.

*I am not making an argument that teacher's should be paid more, although I could. I recognize supply-and-demand and other economic factors playing into this. Anyway, for my point here, the reality makes for a better argument.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Coming to Embrace Twitter; Helping Others Do the Same

                When it comes to Twitter, I was wrong. I had all the usual skepticism, even cynicism; I even blogged about it. Once I signed on, I tip-toed into the water. I remained doubtful when another head of school told me he found Twitter to be a real time-saver.
                But I can admit it: I was wrong. Now I love Twitter for all the reasons you’ve probably experienced and heard, especially if you learned of this post via a Tweet. The professional connections, the flood of useful resources, the serendipity, the pithiness of strong Tweets. I’ve been able to interact with big names whose work has really influenced my own thinking, such as Tom Peters (in one link above, I lamented not hearing back from him; I did a different, later time), Dan Pink, and Steven Johnson. I can see the amazing work some former students are doing. At random times I’ve had brief but enlightening conversations with people on different coasts when three of us happened to be on at the same time.
                I’m not a power-user of Twitter. I don’t follow hundreds of people or have hundreds of followers (though I wouldn't mind more...). I know I could use the tool in ways other than I do, and I also see loads of great ways that a teacher could use Twitter in class. But that’s not the point of the post, and you can find tons of Twitter related stuff here. It has more to do with the questions I often hear from people who have discovered Twitter’s magic: Why aren’t more educators using Twitter? Shouldn’t they all? I've even seen queries wondering if it should be mandatory per a policy. I’ll address that at the end.
                My goal in this post is to provide some hints that may help get some people onto Twitter who otherwise may not have started using it. They come from some workshops I did for folks here at St. John’s Episcopal School and really helped some people give it a shot. A few have really embraced it.
                Before I go into my six specific tips, I offer two cautionary notes. First, don’t get caught up in numbers; think quality over quantity. Second, lurking is just fine; it’s an easy way to begin.
                Many of you likely already know what I’m about to say. But maybe you know someone that would benefit from having this in one place like this, and you can share it. Maybe you’ll also like the musing at the end about Twitter use as a symbol. Anyway, without further ado:

·         Judicious Following
I consider this the most important point, but I acknowledge it can feel selfish. I don’t believe in automatic reciprocation when it comes to following. Before I follow someone, I consider several factors. Do I already have a personal relationship with the person? I check the profile. What’s the connection to my network? How often does the person Tweet? Are the Tweets going to be of value to me? I also “test follow” people to see how it goes. You also can’t be afraid to un-follow. For example, I’ve stopped following some people whose Tweets didn’t add value for me. They weren’t bad at all; they were simply using the tool to disseminate information that I didn’t want, such as a steady stream of their school’s athletic results. I’m sure it was awesome for their school community. Similarly, I’ve kept on people who don’t Tweet very often, but each one is always something good.

·         Hashtags and Fixed Columns
I find it incredibly helpful to have fixed columns set up in the app I use for Twitter (HootSuite is my choice), each one set up to search for a certain hashtag. I’ no talking about the generic ones people will stick in Tweets. I mean ones that highlight a specific topic. For example, because I’m in the independent school world, I have a column devoted to #isedchat and another to #indyschools. During the upcoming NAIS conference, I’ll have one for #naisac14. This enables one to regularly update and then easily skim in that area of interest. It’s also a great way to identify people it would be worth your following. You can find a complete list ofeducational hashtags at the site of @cybraryman1.

·         Chats
A Twitter chat is a wonderful chance to interact in a focused way on a particular topic. At first they can feel very chaotic until you get hang of it (one teacher here described it as cyber-NASCAR). Until you do, almost all post archives; you can follow the moderator to get them. I often will access the archives because it’s hard to do all the one I would like to live, and it also takes less time. Some also have so many participants they simply feel too frenetic for me. My favorite one is the #isedchat on Thursday evenings at 9:00 Eastern time. It’s contained, controlled, relevant, and full of smart folks. @cybrayman1 also has a list ofall the chats.

·         Favorites
Some people mark many Tweets as favorites, but I don’t. It’s sort of like bookmarking websites for later reference. Because so much can flow through your feed, you need some way to mark the ones that really stand out to you. I’ve developed a bit of sense for what to mark. Several times I’ve ended up coming back to something for a presentation or piece of writing.

·         Speed Reading
When I review my feeds, I simply skim along the surface, so fast that I can get through over a hundred tweets in a few minutes, unless something really grabs me. In that case I’ll explore it then if, for example, it contains an interesting link; or I’ll mark it for a later time. It requires a very different ways of accessing and assessing information.

                I’d hope that these suggestions prompt more educators to try Twitter, give it some time, and fall in love with it as I have. However, I don’t believe every educator needs to be on Twitter. Simply put, it’s not for everyone. With all the tools available, people need to find what works for them.

                At the same time, Twitter and the way it works symbolizes the professional outlook we should expect from quality educators. Done well, Twitter use captures that growth mindset, mainly in the constant give-and-take between people committed to their craft and constantly looking for ways to do it better. It’s about both teaching and learning.

Friday, February 7, 2014

With Pride and Gratitude: Reflections on a Snow Day

     I'm always proud of my school and honored to be its head. Yesterday provided another clear reminder of why. It was another crazy weather day in Dallas. (Side musing: While I don't have exact numbers, I think in the 3-1/2 years I've been head, we've had more weather-related issues than in my previous 27 years in education. Granted, all have been in Louisiana and Dallas, but still...)
     For those of you who've never been on our campus, let me set the scene a bit. It's a bucolic retreat in East Dallas. That is an incredible gift, but it presents certain challenges. We have just one entrance. Since we have 500 students, carpool is a challenge on the best days. Also, the drive snakes around, with one big curve being on the largest of several slopes.To give you an idea of how slick and dangerous it was yesterday, our caterer's truck slid over the curb yesterday soon after the snow started. According to the media, it was unusually wet and heavy snow in a uniquely large weather mass. The road leading to campus has dozens of large trees forming a canopy over it, and there is a slight grade heading north--the direction carpool flows.
     Given all of this, when we decided to release early yesterday, it became a massive challenge. Because of the conditions on campus, we decided it was best to walk the children up to the road and load them in cars there. It was too risky to have that many cars coming on campus. So we had people doing those things that are never part of any job description. Some stood out in the elements for well over an hour, relaying information on which kids were up next. Many people were trekking back and forth up and down the front hill to get kids into cars, holding their hands and carrying backpacks. Inside were people fetching students and keeping them entertained and feeling safe. Our maintenance guys were like machines, and a parent showed up who began clearing ice and told us to holler if we needed the chains in his truck. As the road iced, people were pushing cars to drier spots.
     Was it a perfect system? No, and we'll debrief on how to make it better should we face this again. It took longer than we would have liked. It was rather chaotic at times. But whatever craziness was going on was a direct result of the fact that so many people wanted to pitch in.
     I'm also grateful to our families. As I helped kids into cars, I got loads of smiles and thank you's, even from people towards the end of the line. I didn't receive a single nasty remark or email of complaint even though the situation tested everyone.
     As I drifted off to sleep last night, I found myself thinking about how kids must have felt yesterday. Of course, they were wildly thrilled about the snow, the early dismissal, the thought of another snow day. But I suspect they also saw so many adults doing special things to take care of them. That provides kids with the sense of security and love that lets them learn in a safe environment which fosters confidence. The best schools ultimately are about kids, and yesterday we showed our true worth. I'm proud and grateful.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Just How Much 21st Century Teaching Occurs? Reflections After an #Isedchat Session

     Last Thursday night I was only half paying attention to the #isedchat session, even though I love the sessions found the topic fascinating: classroom design for the 21st century*. So I may not have all my facts correct, and I fear this post may come across as cynicism rather than genuine wonder. Some comments and points made me ask just how much innovative, engaging teaching is actually happening in our schools.
     First, I have to say that I find the people in these chats to be extremely thoughtful and dedicated, the type of people I want working in my school. Just think about the fact they are in an hour-long Twitter chat on a Thursday evening at 9:00 Eastern time, looking for nuggets to improve their craft and schools. They are the people advocating for positive changes. Every time I participate, I learn something; when I can't, I scan the archive. On this particular night there were multiple great points about furniture, multi-use walls, idea paint, configurations, sitting versus standing. Much of it centered around a much more active environment, with students much more active in their learning.
     Then I think about what Grant Lichtman calls all the "brush fires of innovation" he discovered on his massive journey around the country and since. I see the amazing things many of my faculty are doing and what my children's teachers at Greenhill School are doing. I hear from other heads of school. So I know we're moving in the right direction.
     But how much so? And how fast?
     Here is why I ask. In the midst of that wonderful chat, people raised concerns and/or asked questions about the following points. What about when it's blue book/final exam time? Don't we have to train them to sit and listen for long periods of time? To sit for SATs and APs? They won't have classrooms like this in college, and we have to get them ready for that.
     Those are realities, and people are right to bring some of them up. As a head of school, I battle constantly to balance my idealism and my practicality. Why, though, would there be a blue book final exam in such a classroom? Maybe schools that have fully embraced this type of modern education should forget about AP courses and exams. At times the conversation felt a bit schizophrenic. It seemed tinged with a degree of resignation, perhaps even assumption, regarding certain "time honored" practices. Thus arose the question which has been rattling in my mind ever since: just how much innovative teaching--and thus better learning--is going on?
     Whatever the elusive and likely-to-some-degree disappointing answer to that question, I think there is a more important question. It's a big, hairy question, multi-faceted with myriad responses. How do school leaders make sure those who are creating those incredible classrooms for the 21st century, whatever the furniture, feel encouraged and supported?

*As many others have said in other places, I really dislike how we continue to use this term.