What is a prism?

You have to check out these 7th grade math videos and voice threads on Mr. Olson’s wiki! The voice threads are first, but don’t stop there, be sure to watch the videos too.  I’m not sure about you but I wish I had learned all of the terms of geometry in this way–looking for examples and creating a video. I visited Mr. Olson’s outstanding classes on the day they were watching the videos.  They had to peer grade their classmates’ presentations, looking for all 8 terms, with accurate definitions, examples and creativity. Think of the reinforcement of the content as the students watched with focus.

This is the kind of learning that will best prepare our students for the future: kids were collaborating, communicating, assessing and analyzing information, using their imagination and creating. And by the way, they were learning the content too, in meaningful ways that will stick with them.

If you’re wondering what’s happening with learning at RCS, I can assure you this is just one example of the amazing opportunities our students find every day. RCS Teachers and Students Rock!

What Drives Us?

Fred Deutsch is a school board member in South Dakota who I’ve been reading at School-of-Thought for a while now. I am usually struck by how much the same things are for Fred in his district as they are for us in ours. He posted yesterday about a presentation he attended at a conference he’s at in DC. The presentation was by Daniel Pink about the three levels of what drives us.

I’m particularly interested because we sometimes  hear teachers or parents complaining that a child just isn’t motivated. Fred recounts the first two levels of drive and I completely agree with Pink’s assessment of those two followed by his thoughts here,

But it’s the third drive that Pink spent most of the session discussing with us — the concept that people will do things because it’s interesting, because people want to get better at it, or because people inherently want to make a difference in the world.

Go read Fred’s whole post for more information. The first two levels are certainly nice, but the third is what pushes me to do my best every day. How about you? How about our kids? As a teacher, don’t you strive to provide learning opportunities to students that are interesting or that help them see their place in the world or that allow them to improve with 21st century skills? Aren’t those the lessons that most “grab” every kid, pushing him to learn more intensely?

I wonder, perhaps Pink’s book Drive might be a great book study for those teachers thinking about focusing on motivation in their Professional Learning Networks next year?  I bet our teachers working together can figure it out for our kids, even for our most reluctant learners.

Resistance to Change

During our staff development on Friday, I talked with teachers about our district vision of  learning with passion, innovation and leadership; about our commitment to focus time for teachers to learn though a different kind of opportunity next year; about how incredible we already are and how I know we are exactly the faculty to learn together, sharing ideas and finding our own way through Professional Learning Communities.

As I was talking I was thinking about the teachers and teaching aides and administrators before me. What were they thinking? Did they understand where we want to go? How could I help them realize that what I say is what I mean and there isn’t some covert, hidden agenda? How can we best support and encourage them in their own learning?

And I was thinking about resistance to change. I was wondering if I had any teachers who were thinking, “please just leave me alone in my room!”

But where positive energy and enthusiasm for learning and leading sometimes end, is at the point in time when we start focusing our plans on the 2-5% who are negative and critical, no matter the plan.

We have an incredible faculty who at their core want to do what’s best for kids, who want to inspire and lead and teach with meaning. This is a faculty who does their best each and every day, whether or not anyone is watching. This is the faculty I’m focusing on as we set out to form Professional Learning Networks where teachers will learn together, in self selected groups on topics of their choice that enhance learning with passion, innovation and leadership. I refuse to lead by thinking about the one or two potential nay-sayers to any plan.

And when I read Seth Godin’s post about the lizard brain, it made me think about brain chemistry and general human nature. Here’s the post, in its entirety.  Seth says,

Lizard image linchpin istockHow can I explain the never-ending irrationality of human behavior?

We say we want one thing, then we do another. We say we want to be successful but we sabotage the job interview. We say we want a product to come to market, but we sandbag the shipping schedule. We say we want to be thin but we eat too much. We say we want to be smart but we skip class or don’t read that book the boss lent us.

The contradictions never end. When someone shows up and acts without contradiction, we’re amazed. When an athlete just does the sport, or when a writer just writes the words, we can’t help but watch, astonished at the purity of their actions. Why is it so difficult to do what we say we’re going to do?

The lizard brain.

Or as Steven Pressfield describes it, the resistance. The resistance is the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise. The resistance is writer’s block and putting jitters and every project that ever shipped late because people couldn’t stay on the same page long enough to get something out the door.

The resistance grows in strength as we get closer to shipping, as we get closer to an insight, as we get closer to the truth of what we really want. That’s because the lizard hates change and achievement and risk.

The lizard is a physical part of your brain, the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because her lizard brain told her to.

Want to know why so many companies can’t keep up with Apple? It’s because they compromise, have meetings, work to fit in, fear the critics and generally work to appease the lizard. Meetings are just one symptom of an organization run by the lizard brain. Late launches, middle of the road products and the rationalization that goes with them are others.

The amygdala isn’t going away. Your lizard brain is here to stay, and your job is to figure out how to quiet it and ignore it. This is so important, I wanted to put it on the cover of my new book. We realized, though, that the lizard brain is freaked out by a picture of itself, and if you want to sell books to someone struggling with the resistance (that would be all of us) best to keep it a little more on the down low.

Now you’ve seen the icon and you know its name. What are you going to do about it?

Let’s work together to keep the lizard part of our brains from slowing us down. I’m game, how about you?

School Calendar for 2010-11

Here’s something that comes up every year as a topic of discussion—the school calendar. As you probably know, it always comes down to the question of a two week break in April or a week in February and a week in April (better known as the split break). There are all kinds of arguments that people make in support of or against one or the other.

The most significant argument of late surrounds the concern over our grades 3-8 state testing which is scheduled for late April through May. Opponents to the two week break are concerned that it’s bad for our kids—two weeks away and then start the NYS testing cycle?

What’s my 2 cents? I hate to think that our students won’t do well on the NYS assessments because they’re away from us for two weeks. The last thing all this state testing should have resulted in was months of test prep, so I like to think that we’re preparing our students to do well throughout the school year, to be good thinkers and readers and writers, and that a week prior to the test of “test taking strategies” should suffice.

I also think the break in February is a needless break in learning. If I had my way, we’d take a week in April and end a week sooner in June but last I checked SED isn’t asking my opinion on the Regents testing schedule. Better yet, let’s go year round in four quarters with two weeks in between each quarter.

The BOE members here elected to keep the two weeks together for next year, but we’re keeping them near the beginning of the month to coincide with the week in April that the “split break” schools take. We need to do that because districts  aren’t independent entities on islands–we send students to other locations and to BOCES for programs and the more we can do the same with our schedules, the better for those Randolph students attending classes at other schools or BOCES.

We haven’t approved the final calendar yet, but we’re close. We also have to start the Friday before Labor Day with students again–whenever it falls a bit later in the month, that happens. It’s either that day for students or the day before Thanksgiving in order to get in all of our student days.

The only other change that I’ll write more about here in the future is in line with our vision of Learning with Passion, Innovation and Leadership. We want to focus more on our teachers as learners too and so are planning for collegial circles or learning clubs next year–where teachers will work in groups over the course of the school year to learn more about topics like project based learning, improving student writing, Thoughtful Classroom strategies, technology integration—topics that they will choose to study that align with our vision—and will allow them to learn and grow as educators.

Research has proven time and again that there is no more significant factor in your child’s success than the teacher in front of him or her in the classroom. Investing in our teachers, in their learning and further developing their expertise, is one of the best investments we can make.  Therefore, we’re planning for one Friday per month when students will be dismissed early so that we can work with our teachers as we focus on learning how to be the best educators we can be— as we learn with passion, innovation and leadership.

Learning with Passion, Innovation and Leadership

When my time in education is done and I’m ready for a second act during retirement (teaching again? writing that book?), I want to know that I’ve made a significant positive difference. To know that I’ve left the place BETTER than I found it, that we’re learning more and that it’s significant learning for everyone. I want to knock the heck out of the status quo.

I think that’s  how most BOE members feel when they serve on a board of education. So it’s with much excitement that I met with our administrators and teachers to talk about the vision/mission set by our BOE at it’s Fall Retreat–Learning with Passion, Innovation and Leadership.

If you think about it, isn’t that what we want for everyone? For every student, every teacher, every athlete—meaningful learning experiences when they can feel passionate about what it is they’re learning. Meaningful learning experiences which they can approach with a curiosity about all that’s in the world today and where they can lead with influence.

Think about your own child. When she goes forward from Randolph Central, what do you want for her? Do you want to know that he can ask good questions, pursuing the life of his dreams with passion and leading with influence and collaboration? Do you want to know that she can communicate her ideas effectively and to think well?

When I think of my own children, I want this for them. It’s nice to know that they did  well in school—as we’ve always measured that anyway–they both achieved honor or high honor roll every quarter, did well on Regents exams, graduate in the top of their classes. But what good will that do them if they can’t THINK through the situations they face, if they can’t advocate for themselves or ask good questions? If they have no flexibility and can’t work with others? If they aren’t curious about everything that’s so amazing in this world? If they just accept everything the world throws at them as their lot in life?

I don’t want my own kids to go quietly through their lives. And I don’t want that for our RCS students either. I hope we’re graduating students who can research and analyze and take the initiative. I hope we’re graduating students who can help to solve the many problems that our world faces–making it a better place than it is today. I want our graduates to know that they have the power to do so. And so I’m always wondering, what are we doing to prepare them to be good thinkers? To let them practice these things?

Time will tell if my own kids can do more than be good students in school. I’m hopeful and optimistic, but I’m not sure that the ability to score well on the Global exam or Earth Science Regents or the 8th grade Math exam shows much more than an ability to memorize, study and take a test well.  Does this success indicate an ability to critically think, to problem solve, to collaborate, lead, initiate, communicate, analyze? To really understand the world around them and their places in it? I’m not sure. I’ve got a daughter who’s an adult and a son with his foot firmly planted on that threshold. It’s largely up to them now.

And our RCS students? Well that’s entirely within our grasp, isn’t it? We determine what happens here every day for our kids. I, for one, along with our teachers, administrators, staff and BOE members, am setting out to change the world. Seriously. I believe that if we truly focus on learning with passion, innovation and leadership, we can prepare our students to be innovative problem solvers who live their lives with purpose and passion. And just for the record, I’ll bet that when we do all of this–they’ll still get good marks on the state assessments, probably better.

Let’s get to it.

Classroom Visits

After over a year in this superintendency, I’m achieving one of the most important goals I set in my entry plan. When I started the job, I made a commitment to visit every classroom. It probably goes without saying that I’ll be more effective as a leader and make better decisions as I come to know our district well. One of the ways I can do this is by spending time in our classrooms.

However, that’s been easier said than done for me. After starting in December of 2008, there was definitely a transition period when I was learning 1000+ things at once while making decisions, developing relationships and trying to do a good job of it all. But even after this year started, I still struggled to make the time to leave all of the office work behind and head to the classrooms. There’s just so much in this position that I never even imagined existed when working in other capacities within a school system.

Problem solved now. I asked my secretary extraordinaire, Maureen Pitts, to help me be a better superintendent. Since she has access to my calendar, she agreed to schedule me for “unscheduled” classroom visits. By doing so, it’s a part of my daily routine and I don’t decide to work on something else instead. She’ll schedule me for two or three teachers at a time, all in close proximity to each other.  I get the chance to see what our kids are learning, come to know our teachers a little bit better and to show that what happens in our classrooms is the most important thing that happens in our district every day. I’m focused on learning. (Thanks Mrs. Pitts!)

It’s especially important as we set forth to follow our BOE vision for the district of “Learning with Passion, Innovation and Leadership”. If we say that learning with passion, innovation and leadership is what’s most important to us as an organization, then I need to walk it, not just talk it.

And the learning I’m seeing in our classrooms every day? As varied as the teachers and students in them with wonderful opportunities for learning at every level. Once again I’m reminded that Randolph Central is exactly the district where we can move forward as our learning opportunities become more and more filled with passion, innovation and leadership—–we’re well on our way already!

Student Teaching

Our daughter, Bryna, is currently student teaching in a small neighboring district. She’s majoring in childhood education, grades 1-6. When it was time to sign up for student teaching, Bryna left her placement up to chance. She didn’t want to be encumbered or helped by my potential relationship with anyone in her placement districts. I respect that, the kid wants to make her way on her own.

As you might expect, I’ve been very interested in what she has to say about her experiences. Education has been my passion for 20+ years so having my daughter in the field is exciting to me. I also know she’s got a talent for it from watching her teach karate to large groups of children since she was about fifteen. Her dad and her brother would add here that she’s the best teacher in the family, especially when working with their less “focused” students. Let’s just say that we saw her potential and talent long before she did, back when she was focused on becoming an attorney.

So she’s been sharing her experiences, everything from how nervous she gets around the principal (“he could potentially hire me if I show him what I can do!”) to how much she adores and respects her cooperating teacher to her positive observations by her SUNY Fredonia professor. I’m glad to hear about her thoughts and her planned projects and her hopes for the future.

But you know what makes me the most proud? When she talks about her kids.When she makes them more than a name in a grade book, a statistic on a NYS assessment report or a count for state aid. When she’s spitting mad because one little boy NEVER has lunch money and his mother won’t fill out the free and reduced lunch form and ‘how is it fair that he has to grow up like this?!’ And when she’s passionate about all that “her” kids can do and the communities project she’s planning and ‘would I come and watch them for the rehearsal day because they really need an audience?’

When I hear my kid advocate for those second graders and plan for them and dream with them, I know she’s got the heart of a teacher. And when she wonders how she can make it better and ‘why can’t I give one little boy 25 cents for ice cream because his mother never will’–that’s when I know she’ll do her very best every day for each of those kids. And I tell her what I know so well to be true from my own experiences, “you’ll have those kids who get a raw deal each and every year. All you can do is love them more.”

In my experience there are lots of kids who will be successful despite us, it’s those who need us to love them because they’re not sure anyone else does who have motivated me in this life long career. If I can show a child that  she matters to me, that I see him, that I expect the best of her because I know it’s in her–well, if you ask me that’s the most valuable thing I can do in the entire course of my lifetime.

I am so thankful that my daughter begins that same work now, for every kid she encounters who needs her. Nothing could possibly make me happier. Who needs an attorney in the family when I’ve got a daughter setting out to change the world, one kid at a time? Go get ’em kid.

RCS Learning Clubs

I’ve written here frequently about Thoughtful Classroom and the instructional strategies I’ve learned.  I’m extremely excited about the 30 teachers who have signed on for our Randolph Learning Clubs! Teams of two teachers will lead learning clubs for two hours per month after school in which other teachers participate. The teachers in the Learning Clubs will be learning new strategies, trying them out, observing and helping one another to implement best practice. We will be building capacity within our own staff in an on-going meaningful way, not just one stop workshops that may or may not take hold in the classroom.

Investing in our collective knowledge as educators, talking about what’s working and asking for suggestions with what’s not–we’re so much better together than apart. And  I’m delighted that 30 of our 82 teachers signed on for this learning opportunity. That’s a great response right out of the gate. It’s not the way teachers have typically done business with one another. There’s a risk in sticking your neck out and saying “hey, I did this and it was wonderful” and an even bigger risk in saying, “this lesson totally bombed, how could I have made it better?” and I’m loving that 30 RCS teachers are on board. Thank you Randolph faculty, I can’t wait to see what you learn together and from each other.

P.S. –thanks to our dynamic curriculum coordinator, Tiffany Giannicchi, for helping to put it all together and working with our Teacher Leaders to make it happen. Thanks in advance to our Teacher Leaders for your willingness to learn and share–you inspire me to keep implementing new ways of learning here.