Sunday, July 24, 2016

Love, Laughter, and Leadership

Ten years ago, I met Kim Dobson.  At that time, Kim was my secretary at Arlington Jr/Sr. High School.  As a new Assistant Principal, I was eager to move into a leadership role and felt that I had now become a leader with my new title.  As is often true, leadership does not come from a title, it comes from a person who deeply cares about people, loves unconditionally, and connects with people on every level.  This was Kim's role, I learned a tremendous amount from her and will forever be grateful for her friendship.

In addition to her role as secretary, Kim was the dance team leader.  The dance team became one of the "must see" events in Arlington.  I remember some people coming to football and basketball games just to see the dance team.  Our school took much pride in them and saw this team take home several state championships under Kim's leadership.
Kim with members of her
dance team.

Kim knew the right amount to lead this team and the right amount to let the team lead itself.  Every year, Arlington's dance team had several outstanding leaders.  Kim knew that she could turn over much of the leadership to these athletes.  She supported them in every way that she could.  She would be there early and would do activities with them in the summer.  She was there for them when the girls needed her.  She cared so deeply about them and I know that the care was a two way street.

Kim's love extended to the school but
her first love is her family.
Kim loves Arlington and all of the students who attend and attended Arlington schools.  Being a secretary can be difficult.  When a parent is upset with someone they call the school and the first line that they get to is the secretary.  I think everyone knew how much Kim loved the kids.  Because of that, they listen to her.  Her opinion matters.  So often, people who called upset or concerned with an issue left the conversation with an understanding that we were there FOR their child.  Kim does this better than anyone.  Her deep love of the students and their families put people at ease and built relationships that helped our students.

Kim loves the staff at Arlington.  The genuine love and care made it so that people wanted to be around her and looked to her for answers.  This was more than being a secretary at a school.  This was a care for a whole community.  People who didn't have a connection to the school looked to Kim for help.  I remember many times when people would call the school for a phone number to a local business.  I thought, wow, people look to Kim for everything.  I don't think they were simply calling for a number, they were looking for a reason to talk to Kim.

Me posing as Arlington's dance
 trophy while holding the trophy.
Kim sent this picture to me
years after leaving Arlington.
My favorite part of Kim is the laughter we shared.  As a young administrator, I was learning to deal with the day to day stress that was a part of my job.  I often didn't handle things perfectly and sometimes was far from perfect.  Kim and I laughed a lot during my 6 years in Arlington.  This is easily the thing I miss the most about working with her.  We had several jokes we shared.  Sometimes we would "write each other up."  Sometimes the jokes were slightly inappropriate but not at the expense of others.  Other times we would write stories that would make each other laugh.  We would have pictures and drawings that were inside jokes.  There was so much laughter in the office, sometimes we forgot that we were "working."   One time, we were in her office laughing about something and pretty much goofing around when a parent entered.  We both immediately went into our business mode and we helped the parent.  I can't remember what it was about but I helped the parent and they left with their question or concern answered.  After the parent left, I remember Kim's response to this situation was "Wow, sometimes I forget that you are actually smart."  We spent so much time goofing around that we knew all sides of each others personalities.  I guess the "smart" side of me didn't come out that often in front of her.
Another picture she sent me.
She titled this picture "Smarty."
I don't have pictures of Kim
because she's always behind the

I left Arlington for a job in another district.  About every two months or so, I receive an email or a picture from Kim.  These are things Kim saved that I had either sent her or of pictures that made her laugh.  Even after I left, we still laughed together.  But this is really who Kim is.  Kim cares about everyone she comes in contact with, she shows them love, and laughter is a constant.  Leadership comes from many places.  Leadership may not be the first thing people think of when they think of Kim.  She never puts herself out there as a leader.  It wasn't her desire to be recognized.  She simply became a leader because of who she is and how she has impacted those around her.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Guidance for Creating Essential Learnings

What is an essential learning? It takes the standards and breaks them down to 10 or so things that you want students to learn during a semester.

Why are they important? We should be basing our instruction on these 10 things.  Therefore, we should be basing our assessments on these 10 or so things.

How are they developed?  Collaboratively with group of people who teach the same or similar things.  See Bill Ferriter’s blog

What do they look like?:  They look kid friendly.  They are probably on a one page document listed out as bulleted points or simple statement.  Again, only about 10 items for a semester.

Are essential learnings basically just standards?  They are not just repeating the standards.  They are making them into words that you can understand and words that students understand.  A standard might ask a learner to do several things all at once. See the standard below

Nebraska Social Studies Standard 12.1.1
Students will analyze and evaluate the foundation, structures, and functions of the United States government as well as local, state, and international governments.

Breaking this standard down, it asks no less than 24 things.  Analyze 3 things (foundation, structure and funtion).  Evaluate 3 things ( foundation, structure, and function).  That’s 6 tasks.  Now do each of those 6 tasks for 4 different types of government (US, local, state, and international)

How can we make that student friendly?  
  1. First we’ll need to break it down.  In an American History class, we can look why (analyze)  the US government was structured the way it was.
  2. Now we can use an “I can” statement or “a student will be able to” statement.
    • I can explain the reasons that the US government has 3 branches.
    • A student will be able to explain the reasons that the US government has 3 branches.

Finally, PLCs are based on 4 main questions
1) What do we want students to know? (essential learning)
2) How do we know that they've learned this? (common formative assessments)
3) What do we do when a student doesn't learn? (intervention)
4) What do we do when a student already knows? (enrichment)

This is the simple version but it is exactly what every PLC in the district should be doing every week.  Determining what we want students to  know and then how to get there.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Failure: The Greatest Learning Tool

We ask students to take risks.  We encourage students to take classes that will be a challenge.  We tell students that learning is more important than the grade.  When we say these things, we mean them.  School should be about learning and growth.  It should be about pushing yourself and growing.  Growth and learning both come from failure. Tim Harford writes in his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, that "success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right the first time."  Albert Einstein once said "failure is success in progress."  Failure is crucial for success.  Mistakes lead to understanding.  This learning happens throughout life:

  • Touch a hot stove--->learn that will burn
  • Fall off your bike--->learn to get up again
  • Lose the starting position on your basketball team--->learn from mistakes
  • Fail to get a job--->evaluate your effectiveness in current job

Failure is the greatest learning tool when the stakes are low.  Bob Ross from The Joy of Painting would say, "We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents."  When mistakes can be painted over, we take risks and learn to love painting.  Those who feel pressure to be perfect the first time will struggle to become great artists.  Perfection is truly our enemy when it comes to the messy process of learning and growing.

Do schools discourage the greatest learning tool?

Our very policies directly tell kids that learning is a competition.  Competition is good in many cases such as athletics.  Competing to do your personal best is good.  Competing to determine a winner and loser has no place in the learning process.

If a student knows that the homework (learning) is being graded, it follows that it will effect GPA.  Class rank is a competition.  We tell students that scholarships and college admittance will be determined by class rank.  With these high stakes, we deincentivize students desire to challenge themselves.  We encourage a very cautious approach to learning where students fear failure.  In many schools, getting one B+ essentially ruins your chances of being the valedictorian.  If we have a valedictorian, we are showing that we value perfection, not growth.

Providing quality feedback on the learning process is important.   Studies show that once a grade is put on the paper, the feedback's importance is gone (Dylan William).  Students will look at the grade and not even read the feedback. Creating growth minded instruction encourages students to take risks and challenges by creating a safe to fail environment.  Creating an environment that encourages failure as a part of the learning process must allow experimentation and curiosity to blossom.  We must not suffocate our students with fear of "losing" the game of school.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Growth Minded Instruction

Growth Minded Instruction

  1. Create instruction based on what is essential for students to know. It is just important in this process to decide "what not to teach" as it is to decide "what to teach."
  2. Develop common formative assessments to determine if students understand the essential content.
  3. Create an environment where it is safe to fail during learning by using common formative assessments, homework, and other practice activities for the purpose of giving quality feedback, not for grading.
  4. Provide interventions for students who do not understand, as determined by the common formative assessments.
  5. Provide enrichment opportunities for students who already "get it," as determined by common formative assessments.
  6. Use summative assessments after providing appropriate practice, homework, formative assessments, quality feedback, enrichment.
  7. Allow for re-takes and re-does on summative assessments only after evidence of further learning by the student.  Have the student create a plan on how they will further their understanding prior to the re-take.
  8. School policies and practices should support teachers and students in this process.  

Friday, January 30, 2015

Responsibility or Mastery?

One "essential learning" in first grade math is that students need to understand addition and subtraction.  If a student takes a test on adding and fails it, should you allow a redo? In the primary grades, we tend to understand that the student needs to master the content.

 In later grades, the answer is often that a student should not be allowed a retake because he should have studied the first time. We have the impression that giving a student a lower grade will hold the student accountable. In many ways, the low grade lets the student off the hook. The student gets a low grade and they are done. We also like to use future teachers as the reason we can't allow them to do a retake. We have to teach them they won't get good instructional practices in the future by not giving them good instructional practices now. Not allowing redoes and retakes sends the message that the timing of the learning is more important than the content.  

If a first grade teacher took the approach that learning responsibility is more important than addition, think of the impact that would have on this student as he moves into 2nd grade and throughout the rest of his education. Which lesson will be more important in 2nd grade, knowing how to add or the fact that the student (supposedly) learned to be more responsible by not being allowed to continue to assess his math facts?  

Study habits are important.  Rather than using punitive grading to "teach that kid a lesson" maybe we need to take time and teach study habits.  When they fail, help the student create a “retake plan.”  Require them to re-take and redo.  The retake, by it's very nature, will be more time intensive.

We want students to be responsible. However, that lesson should not be at the cost of mastering the content. Keep a separate grade for responsibility and make studying the first time a more desirable option.

Sending the right message with your grades

What do I teach?  

Do I teach students responsibility, content, or character?  

If you answered all 3, you are right.  Aren't all 3 important? Can one grade show everything for these 3 diverse topics? It is hard to get an accurate reflection of anything when we mix in everything. I want to use grades to help determine next steps. The next step is very different for the following 2 students and yet the overall grade would not tell me what to do to help these students.

Student 1
5/5 brought in Kleenex
7/10 Math Assessment 1
5/5 covered book
10/10 homework
10/10 homework
6/10 Math Assessment 2
3/0 Bonus-"Math Selfie"

46/50 =92% = B+

Student 2
0/5 Kleenex
10/10 Math Assessment 1
0/5 Covered Book
10/10 homework
0/10 homework
10/10 Math Assessment 2
0/0 Bonus "Math Selfie"

30/50 = 60% = F

Can these grades help me determine who needs an intervention for responsibility? Can these grades give who needs intervention for "Effort?" Can these tell me who needs an academic intervention?

Effort, responsibility, and academics are all important.  They must be given separate grades in order to use grades to intervene.

In the Real World You Can't Turn Things in Late?

“In the real world you aren’t allowed to turn things in late, you’d get fired!!!” 

Is that true?  Do you really get fired for turning things in late? Let’s use Johnson Crossing's (5th and 6th grade building) PLC discussion board as an example.  Understand first of all that this isn’t about the PLC discussion board (teachers-no need to feel guilty for not posting).  

Here is what the January 5th Weekly Bulletin said “ Please respond to “PLC Data” post by January 6th.”  We have 45 teachers at JCAC.  Fifteen teachers responded prior to or on January 6th.  Nine additional teachers posted late.  Do you think anyone got fired?  How about written reprimands?  Anything?  Anyone,  anyone, Bueller, Bueller, Bueller.  That’s right, teachers sometimes don’t turn anything in when they are required to by their principal and nothing happens.

But that's different, right? You are correct, our staff is ages 22-53 years old. Our students range in ages from 10-13 years old. Yet we expect our 10 year olds to show responsibility that our 30 somethings are not expected to do.

So why not get upset with the 21 teachers who did not complete the assignment. We had a great in-person discussion. We learned together to use PLC data. As a principal, it is more important that the learning about our PLC Data happens than how and when it happens.