Fringe benefits

So I’m realizing this blogging gig has some fringe benefits that I didn’t expect. One of G-Town’s readers and a frequent commenter is Lisa, who happens to be my college roommate. Lisa and I graduated over twenty years ago. We’ve remained friends through a lot of life’s changes, seeing each other every couple of years. We are both busy working moms and we talk only once in a while. Blogging has given us a new way to connect.

Here’s the interesting thing about this blogging connection. Lisa isn’t an educator; she’s a human resource manager. Often she has commented about how similar a topic in one of my posts is to something she’s been thinking about. That makes sense because we both manage, and hopefully motivate, employees. The best part is that it’s inspired Lisa to create her own human resources blog, and now I get to go and read what’s on Lisa’s mind.

I’ve always thought of my audience as those in the school community, other principals, teachers, students, and community members. Now I realize it may also include other professionals, connecting us to a much broader audience, one with an important voice. I hope that what I’m writing reflects positively on public education.

Imagine if it actually could influence thinking about who we are as educators, what public school is really like, and what a tremendous profession it can be for young people making career choices. And if it can influence thinking in the private sector. Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation Lisa. I can’t wait to read you and see what I can learn.

This blog just isn’t getting it done.

I just realized something major through a conversation with other educators in a session with Will Richardson about changing school to keep up with the learning available in School 2.0. We’re talking about the urgency to really get educators to LEARN about everything that’s available through connections on-line, to understand the LEARNING that’s vital, and to see themselves as LEARNERS.

In the conversation, I mentioned that when I was a teacher, I often attended a workshop or a conference, returned to my classroom and implemented the idea into my own best practice. It impacted the students in my room, but I honestly didn’t care what happened in the rest of the school. It worked for me, for my students, and that was enough for me.

As a principal, I have the responsibility for the learning in every classroom in my building. But I realize now, if I’m really honest, that I’m still doing the same thing as the principal that I did as a teacher. I learned about blogging, bloglines, wikis, and podcasts. I returned to my office (instead of my classroom) and I added it to my best practice. I found the couple of teachers in my building who were doing it too and sought them out for conversations about this best practice.

I’ve done NOTHING to influence thinking or best practice in the rest of those classrooms. That’s my job now and I’m still behaving as I did when I was a teacher. Just doing my thing, what works for me, finding huge learning gains for myself, and letting the world continue as it always has for everyone who hasn’t happened onto what I’m doing.

Gutless. Safe. Not a leader. I need to make a change in my own best practice. I need to gather those teachers who are taking a risk, who are curious, who are learning on the Web, and along with them, we need to take our learning to everyone else. I’ve shown on this blog what’s important to me, I’ve had a strong voice, and I haven’t done squat to share it with my teachers, my students, my BOE, and my community. Let’s go, I’m ready. 

Small change

So what can I tell you, I like change. I’ve been resisting the urge to change my blog presentation, figuring readers were used to the daisy look. But, hey, I’m a girl who changes the furniture at least once per week at home and a couple of times per year in my office at school. This is a way to change without using any muscle. What do you think? I’m at a conference all day tomorrow, following up on “High School’s New Face” from last July where I learned about all of this blog business from Will, I’ll have to ask there if it’s proper blog etiquette to mix it up from time to time.

Ineligibility Procedures

Do you work in or attend a school with an ineligibility procedure? This means that if students don’t meet a teacher’s criteria, they will be ineligible for after school activities. This is an issue that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. It’s somewhat of a “hot button” issue for our school and something on which I have not been able to come to agreement with some of our faculty. I write about it now to clarify my own thinking and to solicit ideas from others.

The criteria for participating in non-credit bearing activities are based on five academic criteria. The student must be prepared for class. He must be working at a successful level, or, if not, at the student’s level of potential. She must have assignments up to date and not on the obligation list. Students must be present and on time for class. They must also exhibit positive class participation and cooperation.

Those students a teacher feels are not meeting the criteria above may not participate in extra-curricular activities during ineligible status until removed by the teacher. The teacher can place the student on probation for a week, remove the student, and extend the probation to ineligibility. Students who play school sports are removed from the sport if they land on ineligibility three times in a given season.

Teachers place the students on the list at their discretion. This year, the procedure has been changed in two ways. One, the student must be ineligible in two or more subjects to be ineligible for extra-curricular activities. Two, students may still attend practices/activities if they are participating in an after school “learning center” where there is a teacher available to help with school-work.

My thinking in making these changes is simple. Previously, the procedure seemed based on a reward and punishment model. “You do this for me or I take that away.” While I understand that philosophy and agree that our students should be taking care of business during the school day, I do not find the strictly punitive model to be motivating to students and effective. The addition of the two changes cited above offers the student support to get off of the ineligibility list through the learning center and allows him or her to continue with the activity, which can be extremely motivating to a student.

The addition of the two subjects or more section is to recognize that a good student may struggle from time to time in one subject. Last year, we had about half of our junior class facing the loss of Prom because of incompletion of a major research project. Do I think they should have taken care of the project? Of course. Do I think there are consequences built into the classroom procedures, within the power of the teacher, that are in place for that failure? Certainly, students receive lower grades, phone calls to parents, and serious implications for some in regard to passing the course. Do I think otherwise good students should lose a major high school event for lack of completion of one project? No, I don’t. And this is where I differ from some of my teachers.

I understand that this change, which makes perfect sense to me, also caused some teachers to feel that they weren’t supported. But how do I support something that I don’t believe in? I do believe in reasonable consequences for our students when they fall down, but I will never be able to support an extremely punitive environment. That’s not how I manage anyone in G-town, teachers and support staff included. So why would I manage students in that way? Readers, am I way off base on this one?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me. . .

I think teenagers get a bad rap sometimes. We took a trip to the Mall yesterday. My son is fourteen and I heard him ask his nineteen-year old sister if she remembered reaching the age where everyone looks at you as if you’re about to steal something from them. She agreed unequivocally, stating that there are two stores that she won’t enter to this day because of the way she was treated when she shopped there as a young teen. She said the saleswomen were rude, refused to help her, and made her feel like less than she was.

Now I understand that retail outlets have good reason to pay attention to teenagers because shoplifting is a problem that results in profit loss. I also remember from my old “retail” days when I managed convenience stores followed by pharmacies, that employee and vendors’ theft add up to a much more significant loss. But I also remember being taught to treat customers with the utmost respect to the point where when I saw an older woman stick something in her coat, I offered her a basket to keep it in and then showed her to the register.

Why then, are teenagers approached with such suspicion? Because a percentage of teenagers (just like adults) are less than reputable, certainly doesn’t mean we need to treat all kids as if they are ill intended.

I wonder how this translates to how we treat teenagers as they enter our schools. Certainly, it goes back to expectations once again. When we treat students with respect and dignity, they meet our expectations. Likewise, if we treat them with suspicion and disregard, they may decide they’d rather not return to our school at all. It probably also explains why some parents avoid school, poor treatment in school as a child stays in a person’s mind for a very long time.

Let’s make sure we’re not doing anything that causes someone to avoid our school at all costs, like my daughter who won’t ever return to a store at the Mall. We can’t afford to lose anyone’s business.

To retain or not to retain, that is the question.

We have a Dean of Students, Dan C., who handles discipline in G-Town. He and I had an interesting discussion this morning about retention. It’s not the first time we’ve had this discussion and it’s generally the same every time.

About two years ago, a considerable number of students were retained in the middle school because they failed multiple subjects. Dan’s point of view is that this consequence for lack of effort and achievement sends a powerful message to these students and to others who may be barely passing. My point of view is that it primarily increases the chances that the retained students will drop out. Dan argues that we can’t measure what effect it has on the students on the borderline and also that those retained students would likely have dropped out anyway.

My argument about the preponderance of research indicating the negative consequences does not convince Dan that retention is a poor choice. The National Association of School Psychologists cite the following in a position paper on retention:

Research examining the overall effects of 19 empirical studies conducted during the 1990s compared outcomes for students who were retained and matched comparison students who were promoted. Results indicate that grade retention had a negative impact on all areas of achievement (reading, math and language) and socio-emotional adjustment (peer relationships, self esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance).

Again, Dan argues that this does not measure what impact retention may have on those students in danger of being retained, or who are barely passing. This position paper by the NASP is sufficient evidence for me that retained students are in more serious danger of dropping out based on retention alone. Do we sacrifice the retained students in order to teach the rest of the student population a lesson?

I’m not arguing for social promotion. Here’s where Dan and I agree. If we are saying students aren’t adequately prepared for ninth grade, what are we going to do differently? Just repeating the same thing they already failed at is not likely to help. We need a bridge year or semester or something. And when do we examine the underlying reasons the students are failing? I am hard pressed to believe that it’s just because they refuse to do the work and we need to teach them a lesson, a work ethic. I just don’t believe that children choose to fail, rarely, if ever. Where then is our responsibility to go back and evaluate our curriculum and instruction? Our remedial programs? Our early identification of students who need additional support?

And still I have students entering 9th grade this year at 15 or 16 years of age. I’m not talking about one or two kids.  How will I possibly motivate them to stick around until they are 19 or 20 years old for a diploma? I would consider an accelerated program in high school to get them through in three years, as Dan wisely suggests, but they most likely require AIS and remediation and extra time, not less time.

I come back to the responsibility of instruction and programs that is mine as the principal and is detailed in this report by reading specialist Debra Johnson.

Meaningful Learning

Skilled teachers intensify learning by providing authentic instruction and meaningful assignments while holding high expectations for all students. Such assignments deal with the significant concepts of a discipline, incorporate higher-order thinking skills, are connected to the “real world,” and allow substantial time for discussion and idea sharing among students (Peterson, 1995). Furthermore, teachers can employ several learning models to create active learning environments that reflect a shift in the relationships among teachers, students, and knowledge. In these environments, students work together to frame their own questions and investigate them. Active environments require collaboration and communication, and encourage more analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of information than do traditional classrooms (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2000). Active learning environments require students to take responsibility for their own learning and develop strategies for learning (Costello, 1996). Instruction in active environments emphasizes depth of learning rather than breadth of learning (Peterson, 1995).

Is this the kind of learning our retainees experienced? Did we do enough? Did they get the best instruction and intervention along the way? Did we teach them to read for comprehension? Did we involve the necessary support personnel? Did we form relationships with the students and their families? Can we ever do enough? I guess when our graduation rate is in the 95%-100% range instead of only 79%, then perhaps I’ll be satisfied. The problem for me is that they’re not statistics, they’re kids who I know, and I also know they’re much better off entering the world with a diploma.

Hooked on learning

I think this blogging gig is actually leading to meaningful conversations about education. Face to face conversations. I’m running into teachers and students in the hallway who have read a blog post and then want to talk about it. This is much different than the casual, “how’s it going?” conversations that normally take place. They are a meaningful dialogue where both professionals and students are reading, reflecting, and responding.

Blogging may just lead to a professional learning community where we talk more about our ideas on education than the lack of toner in the printers. Even on a bad day at work, when I’m inundated with tasks that seem mundane or meaningless, I feel energized by what I read. I’m reminded, every day, of what’s important in education. 

I’m encouraged and uplifted by the meaningful conversations taking place in the hallways, on-line on blogs, through email, and in my community. I truly hope that this continues to grow, that we’ll really think about what’s important in G-town and more important, that we’ll talk about it. All the petty little things that people find to complain about may actually give way to a much higher ground. I’m seeing it and I’m believing it. I’m also energized by it and will be a better principal because of everything that my readers and other bloggers teach me. Yeah, I’m totally hooked.

 

Encore

When I think about our encore subjects, or specials as some districts call them, I think my expectations are greater in some ways than for the core subjects. After all, teachers of encore subjects don’t have to worry about the Regents exams and they aren’t scrutinized in the K-12 analysis of data. So why would my expectations be greater?

For many children, this is the only place that they can excel. For a student who doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a successful learner, physical education, art, music, technology, and home & careers may be the only place the student finds success. This makes the child’s experience in those classes critical. As I’ve written here before, we have to connect with our students in ways that make coming to school important to them and the “specials” are a great way to make that happen.

As teachers and parents talk about high expectations, let’s remember to include these encore subjects. But let’s remember them as the place where students have an opportunity to create, to enjoy, to appreciate, to move, and to love learning. The encore subjects, above all, should allow children to follow their passions and to enjoy school. I have high expectations for them because they afford the diversity of learning that I so long for in our schools.

Thank you to the wonderful, caring teachers working so hard in these subjects. As staff development efforts continue to focus on data analysis in the core subjects, never forget how important your role is for our children. Finding success with you may just motivate students to keep working on those math problems and journal entries. Let them love what they do with you.

Just a little success at something.

David O’Rourke proposed an interesting activity at a meeting I attended yesterday. We’re focusing on our students who drop out, specifically those who are Native American because they are dropping out at a significantly higher rate than our other students. David is leading our three-district initiative.

Yesterday he asked us to take two minutes to think about one student who is failing two or more subjects and who’s unlikely to graduate. Imagine what he may need to get him there. Well, I’ve taken more than two minutes to think about it because I haven’t stopped yet.

It brings me back to this idea of one high school fits all again. Why? Because when I imagine what every student needs to stay in school, it’s success. She needs to find success in our school that’s so compelling it makes her want to return every day. It doesn’t have to be success at everything, but at something, at anything.

Let me use an example. When I attended elementary and middle school, I was in most of my classes with Leslie Horn. Leslie was smarter than me. She always did better than I did on every assignment, in every class. As a child thinks, I concluded that she was smarter than me, plain and simple. I don’t remember being upset about it, because I also knew that I was smarter than Ronnie B. Probably just about every kid could look to his right and see someone who was smarter and to her left and see someone who wasn’t. But what about the kid at the end? That’s the student we lose.

We need to provide lots of different opportunities to succeed that result in a diploma. Not just one way.

When Leslie and Ronnie and I got to high school, we went in different directions. Leslie went into the Honors courses; I went into the Business courses and Ronnie B. went into vocational courses. Each of us got to excel at something, got to stop comparing, got to find our own success. I remember being surprised when I won a DECA competition; just as Ronnie B. may have been surprised to find out he was terrific at fixing cars. But we got to find out. We got to take different routes and isn’t that what the rest of our lives is all about? When we enter the work force, we go in the direction of whatever it is we’re best at—I’m not singing and dancing on Broadway for a reason. And I love my job, because every day I get to follow my passion, education. With my students who struggle the most, all they get to do at our high school is more of what they struggle with, through remediation and AIS and doubling up on subjects they can’t pass.

Why does everyone have to get out of high school in the same way? Who decided that’s the only way that’s worthy? I want a school where we can help our students determine their strengths and do more of what they’re good at, whatever it may be. And I want to help them figure out what that is instead of showing them where they fall short.