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.

Renovate or rebuild?

Do you ever imagine your ideal high school? I do. I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of education and how dramatically learning will shift in the next 10 years. I wonder if public high schools will shift to mirror the learning shift. I wonder if we’ll plan the changes we need in public education quickly enough. I suspect we’ll fall short.

While I’m getting my head around School 2.0, I can’t even begin to grasp how to shift the system I’m currently working in to one so dramatically different. I have this circular conversation with myself where I end up thinking I would need to start from scratch and start a whole new school. Sort of the retail philosophy of finding it easier to tear down an existing store and build a brand new one on the same location, rather than trying to renovate the old one.

Except I love the old store. I really want to renovate it, to transform it into a center for learning that utilizes all of the technologies that are available. I have the big picture. It’s the details I struggle with, like budget and resources, like moving people forward who may be very happy with the current system.

I worry that the enormity of the task will make it too overwhelming to tackle and nothing will happen. Learning is changing every second of every day, with information so readily available that just like on-line shoppers have lessened retail business, on-line learning will lessen our vital spot in the community. If we hope to be the center of learning, if we hope to keep people coming to our “store”, we better make sure we’re the best shop in town. 

Blog Evolution

When I originally set up this blog in July, it was without a whole lot of planning for the future. I was interested in finding a way to connect with my students, faculty, staff, and parents. I thought it would be a way to get my ideas out there about relatively mundane activities at G-Town.

Then, without any forethought, it went in this other direction where I was writing for a different audience, an audience of fellow educators. I remember asking Will Richardson what he thought about where G-Town talks was going and where I had intended it to go. That was in August and Will thought I was probably looking at two different blogs. I never thought for a second I could manage both and now I find some readers in G-Town. Some students have chimed in, a couple of regular readers in my teachers and staff, a parent or two. The two different audiences are beginning to converge.

Up until this point, I haven’t done much to put this out there in G-Town as a public relations tool, or even as a communications tool. I’m wondering if I should. In little ways, I’ve made it public. I’ve listed this blog address at the bottom of my email signature and our tech guy linked to it from our school website. Should I put an article in the newsletter? Should I talk to my teachers about it? Does that just become self- promotion? A reader recently commented on the creative writing nature of my blog and it made me wonder if readers will figure I should have better things to do with my time. And yes, Courtney and Mrs. Furman, I read your wonderful comments in response to him–thank you. But it does make me wonder if that will be echoed in our community.

Maybe I should just quietly continue on, writing as I am now. Sharing with those who I know are interested, those who are also blogging. Problem is, that doesn’t feel like I’m exactly leading then, does it?

All the children of the world

Why are people’s differences such a big deal to some of us? I just don’t understand this and I’ve tried. We’re ALL DIFFERENT. I hate to have to state the obvious, but if it’s so obvious, then why do so many people miss it?

I spent some time with two intelligent young educators, Pat and Tim, the other day. They’re in our school for a college course at SUNY Fredonia, about understanding multicultural students. It sounds like a lot has been emphasized in their coursework about how our students differ from others, as Native Americans.

My thinking on this is that ethnicity doesn’t define a person; it’s just a part of who he is. Every student in the classroom is different; ethnicity is just one piece to understanding the student. And they differ in about a gazillion ways. These two guys got that, and better yet, they realized that it’s their responsibility as the teacher to know EVERY student in the classroom. From Rachel’s Challenge yesterday, “input equals output”. The more teachers put into their students, the more they care, the more they get to know them and their unique interests, the more time spent designing lessons that are of interest to them, the better. These two young guys get that it’s about teaching our students first, the subject second. Each student.

Now for anyone who thinks I just said content isn’t important–wrong! But I am saying that if you don’t connect with those students, if they don’t feel that you care about them as much or more than you care about your subject– forget about it. They aren’t going to learn your content from you anyway.

But this isn’t the only reason I’m thinking about this. I also have students who are talking to me about their own differences in regard to their sexual orientation. They talk about acceptance and tolerance and support.

I’m sorry that it matters. I’m sorry that their “differences” are such a big deal. I’m sorry that they will feel defined by this difference, instead of it just being a part of them.

Why can’t we just see the person? Why do we have to see Native or White or straight or gay or rich or poor? Why can’t we just see the person? Why is this so difficult for so many? Why must we be defined by people’s notions of us based on what they see on the surface? Why can’t we take more time to truly know the person?

 

 

I accept Rachel’s Challenge

     Along with two of our guidance counselors, Beth and Jennifer, I went to see an assembly at a neighboring school today. It’s called Rachel’s Challenge and you can check it out at their website. This was Rachel Scott’s story, as told through video and a family friend, Derek Kilgore. As described on Rachel’s Challenge,

Rachel Scott was the first person killed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Her acts of kindness and compassion coupled with the contents of her 6 diaries have become the foundation for one of the most life-changing school programs in America – Rachel’s Challenge.
Attending this assembly was an amazing experience as an adult.  I can only imagine what it feels like for our students.  Rachel talked through her journals, essays, and friends about starting a chain reaction of compassion. I found her story, her character, her spirit to be inspirational and an excellent reminder of the difference one person can make.
     I returned to G-Town thinking about my daily interactions with students and teachers and how important they are, not to be taken for granted. I try to stand in the hallways between class periods, every time the bell rings, just like thousands of teachers across the country. I stand out there to supervise, to model that for my teachers, and to see our students. After this assembly, I realize how important my behavior is at that moment and at others. How important it is to make contact with every student, to greet each kid, to smile and acknowledge him or her. I realize that the small things we do make a difference too. One interaction at a time.
     Rachel’s Challenge was the kind of assembly program I want my own children to participate in and we’ll work hard to find a way to bring it to Gowanda. Rachel Scott touched my heart today and I accept Rachel’s Challenge to look for the best in others, to set goals and write about them, to choose my influences and to make them positive, to use kind words, and to start a chain reaction in G-Town.