Aug 16

Leaders Stand Up

This is a post for Scott McLeod’s #LeadershipDay14. Thanks, as always, Scott, for providing a forum for us to push our thinking.

So, there’s a funny thing that has happened with a bunch of SLA teachers over the years. There are several folks who have come to SLA after spending time at schools with leadership who they felt were sub-standard. And, I think, after eight years, I am comfortable with the idea that, while I still have lots to learn as a leader, I’ve passed the “Doesn’t Suck” test. At least most days. So as a result, several teachers have come to me and had some version of this comment:

“Before I came here, I thought I might want to be a principal, but after watching what you do every day, I don’t want to be a principal anymore.”

And here’s the thing… leadership is hard. It just is. Every year we deal with the financial crisis of the School District of Philadelphia, I know that the teachers, students and parents of SLA are counting on me to figure out how to navigate the challenges we face while keeping the school intact.

Because leaders stand up.

And it gets harder at the next level. I was at an event around advocacy for the district recently, and a reporter asked me what I would do if I were facing what Dr. Hite was facing, and my first reaction was, “I’m thankful it’s him, not me.” He has dealt with financial challenges, and he keeps coming out, being visible, talking about the choices he’s making, and owning them all.

Because leaders stand up.

One of the incredible things about leadership is that it lays you bare for who you are. There are rare moments when I am 100% sure of my course of action, but what I have learned is that I have to listen to a lot of people, consider as many variables as I can, and then take action, even when it’s hard. Even when there isn’t a clear path of action.

Because leaders stand up.

And the thing about it is… if you want to be a leader, you have to learn that while you are always searching for the win-win, there are also moments where you have to make unpopular decisions. It’s lonely. It often sucks. And even the folks who you go to to figure it all out aren’t the ones who have to live with the decision after its done. The people you asked for advice… the folks you sought out… they all have the ability to say, “It wasn’t my decision to make.” And they are right. It was yours. If you listened to bad advice, that’s your fault, not theirs. No one holds the kitchen cabinet accountable. Only you.

Because leaders stand up.

And as educational leaders, when there are challenges that affect our kids, we send a message with our actions and our words. If we are unwilling to act, if we are unwilling to speak, our kids will take notice. But when we listen, when we speak, when we are willing to show our kids we care,  when we make sure our kids know that their issues are our issues,  we can be the educational leaders our kids and our teachers need us to be. And because of that, even if it is hard, even if we don’t feel like we know exactly what to say or do, even if not everyone will like what we do or say, we have to be willing to take the risk to do what we believe to be right.

Because leaders stand up.

Aug 09

Maybe We Could Just Get Better

With the start of the new school, educators around the country – especially those in schools and districts that have been labeled as failing – are learning about the new initiatives that their schools will be undertaking this school year. Many of these initiatives will be mandated – top-down – from an administrator at the school, district or state level. And many of these initiatives will be a sharp turn away from the practices of the past year.

And these new initiatives will be enacted in the name of closing the achievement gap, addressing some data-driven problem that has been identified, or somehow finding some magic bullet to raise test scores.

And many teachers go through this process year after year after year.

And it makes me ask a simple question – what if some of the problems of our school is that we never let people get good at any one thing?

This is not to say that schools should look at challenges and problems they face and address them.

This is not to say that educators should not strive to learn new ideas and new practices.

But when do we let teachers get good at stuff too?

Schools need to grow along healthy pathways. So do the teachers and students than inhabit them. When we commit to a pedagogical plan or a new structure or system, and we say, “Barring epic failure, we’re going to work on this strategy for a few years,” we honor the fact that people can learn and get better at their craft.

There are many pedagogical approaches to education. I have a favorite that I am passionate about – inquiry-based education. I have been lucky enough to work with a group of teachers and students who have dedicated themselves to getting better at that craft. And as a community, we very much have gotten better. I am also lucky enough to have been afforded the space and time to get better. I remember the first year SLA took the PSSAs and our math scores were lower than we expected them to be. I was terrified that my regional superintendent, Marilyn Perez, was going to tell me that we had to abandon our inquiry-driven math plan. I called her with the scores – we had done the calculations by hand from state score sheets, so we had the data before the district had calculated the school-wide results – and she said to me, “Now you have your baseline, and knowing SLA, you and your teachers are already thinking about how to get better at what you do.”

She held us accountable for our performance and listened to our plan on how we were going to get better at what we did… not change pedagogy or approach, but evolve and get better. To this day, if Marilyn were to call and say, “I need a favor…” the answer would be unequivocally yes, because she was willing to work with SLA to give us time to grow along a healthy path that allowed us to evolve, rather than shift gears.

We need to create more spaces for schools to define school-wide structural and pedagogical approaches to education, and then we need to give schools time and space to grow and get better at their craft as a community. In too many schools and districts, September represents a time where teachers and students have to throw out last year’s “Best Practice” in favor of the latest and greatest idea to come out of a policy office somewhere.

Perhaps we are a time where we can admit that our best practices are the ones that we actually get the time to practice.

Sep 03

Thoughts on Leadership: Better v. Different

“Well, it’s not the way I would have done it.”

One of the things that can be difficult about working toward a distributed leadership model is that people do things differently that you would. And yes, that’s also one of the best parts of distributed leadership, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

When I sit down with a teacher or a group of teachers, and they are a point where they have worked on something and now want to get feedback on it, I have to be thoughtful to make sure I look through the lens of the work that has been done, not the work that I would have done if it were me.

And that’s true, not just for administrators, but for everyone involved.

Oftentimes, committees are given the task of taking apart an idea and coming up with potential solutions to problems. Our committees are all open, so that any teacher can join any committee. When we come together as a faculty to examine what a committee has done, we have to be sure to respect the work that was done. I

It is easy to suggest different conclusions than what a group of people have come up with, but different doesn’t always mean better. There are times when a new idea or a new direction really is better than what is being proposed, but more often than not, a new idea is just different.

One of the ways to get around the better v. different challenge is to use critique, rather than brainstorming. When we ask questions of the idea or proposal in front of us, we are able to examine the idea on its merits, not in comparison to the idea in our own head. When we offer honest critique, we give other people’s ideas the airing they need before implementation. And when we allow ourselves to be open to the solutions other people come up with, we honor the work of others and create a more empowered school with truly distributed leadership.

For us to give up our ideas in those moments requires us to understand that there is, oftentimes, not a right or wrong way to do things, but different ways to do things, and that we – whether we are teachers or administrators (or parents or students) – do not have a monopoly on the right way to do things. And as a principal, if I want to empower leadership beyond the walls of my office, I have to understand that will people come up with different answers than mine, and that the honest critique of those ideas by multiple voices will often create answers that are far better.

Aug 14

Thoughts for a New Administrator: Simplify

I’m reading Up the Down Staircase right now, and far too much of it rings true than it should, especially when it comes to the arcane administrative details of the teaching life. And that brings me to tonight’s post – Simplify.

As much as I like to think of being a principal as being the “principal teacher,” there’s a significant portion of the job that is about management. In fact, a 2010 Calder Study suggests that organizational management may create greater change than instructional coaching. And that makes sense. Most of our schools are filled with crufty processes that make the whole add up to less than the sum of its parts. There are binders covered in dust that are filled with forms filled out by various members of the school community. There are legacy processes from forgotten initiatives – to the point where some schools still make teachers do Taylor Time-Studies.

And this isn’t exciting, but one of the things a new administrator can do is come in and simplify the lives of everyone else in the building. When we strip away the processes that are least effective, when we look to create efficiencies so that the things we have to do are easier, we allow teachers to focus on what really matters – the time they spend with students and the time they spend with the students’ work. If we have to ask teachers to take time away from that, we should ensure that we’re doing it for good reason, and we’re making it as easy for teachers to do the task as possible.

Anything we can turn into a Google Form instead of a Word Doc to fill out is a win for teachers. Any time we can link something to our internal faculty site instead of printing it out to be filed away and hunted for later, it’s a win. Any time we make it easier for parents to sign up to volunteer or meet with us, we increase good will. Any time we make the structure of school easier for students to understand, they will have more energy to invest in their learning.

So, here’s a thought for the first meetings with the various stakeholders… ask these questions:

  • For teachers: How can we simply the processes of school so that you can maximize the time you spend on teaching and learning? What do we not need to do? What can we do more easily and efficiently?
  • For parents: How can we make communication between home and school easier? How can we make sure that home and school both get the information we need in a timely fashion?
  • For students: When does the “game” of school get in the way of your learning? How can we make the structure of school more transparent, so that it is easier to focus on learning?

What would you simplify?

Jul 01

Free the Hallways

According to school architect and author of The Third Teacher, Trung Le, over 35% of the square footage of the average school are in use less than 5% of the day.

The hallways.

The reason for this is that the institutional design that schools most resemble are prisons.

Think about it — we move kids from cell to cell, we monitor their coming and going whenever they leave their cells at anything but the designated time, often giving them a pass so that other adults can know immediately that the student is allowed in the common space, and many principals are taught that the secret of success as an administrator is to clear the hallways as soon as the bell rings at the start of class, and most schools give three or four minutes to get from class to class, no matter how big the campus is or how crowded the hallways get at the change of classes.

And we wonder why kids feel like school feel like prison.

If we want kids to feel that schools are more human places, let’s start by making every space a learning space, every space a social space. Let’s free the hallways. It makes sense from a practical point, if nothing else. Authentic learning tends to require more square footage than traditional schooling. When a class of 30 high school students start collaborating, the average classroom can get loud quickly. Letting a few groups work in the hallways is not only a way of letting students own where and how they learn, it also just makes learning easier by simply giving kids more room to work.

But it makes sense from a philosophical sense as well. We can shift our thinking from  When kids are not herded from classes to class with three minutes but are given a little more time to transition, they feel more valued. When kids do not view learning as tethered only to a specific classroom space, they are more likely to see school as a continuum of social learning that is an intrinsic part of their lives, not just something that is done to them.

And yes, there will be times when the kids get louder than we want them to. And yes, this will make it easier for some students to check out of the learning when they want to. And yes, it will mean that “classroom management” can be a little harder when our classrooms does not end at the door of the physical class space. These are some of the negative consequences of what can be a very good idea. And while we need to do things to mitigate those issues, they will never go away. The question we need to ask ourselves is always this:

Is it better to deal with the issues that arise from allowing students more ownership over where and how they learn than dealing with the issues that arise from making sure students know that the adults tell them where and when to be at all times?

If the answer is yes, then schools need to prepare for a major culture shift.

But let’s be clear — this is hard.

This does challenge many of the assumptions we have made about school and how schools function as organizations, and this is a very difficult challenge for many educators to make. Thinking through the questions, challenges, issues and consequences – both positive and negative – of a shift like this requires honoring the concerns of everyone involved.

  • What happens when we put tables and chairs along the halls and make it space that kids can use?
  • What happens when students do not have to stay only in the cafeteria to eat lunch?
  • What happens when we create spaces that are shared between teachers and students?
  • What are the ways we can create third spaces for kids to be that are lightly supervised with a lot of space for student ownership over community standards of behavior?
  • How can the community keep the best goals of this shift in mind, even when there are frustrations with the shift?
  • How do we balance what can be competing needs of teachers and students in the use of physical space?

Autonomy and agency can be really hard, because people make bad decisions from time to time — not just kids, but all of us. And this is not about giving total autonomy to students — everyone has a responsibility to each other to be responsible to the learning process, especially if much of the learning is collaborative. It is about collaborative agency, where decisions can be made together. And when we give kids more agency over how they use the space, we challenge many of the assumptions we make about school. That’s not easy, but the rewards can be one more powerful way we move from compulsory schooling to a more democratic and empowering education. Schools are not prisons, and every step we move away from that model of institutional design, the better.

Jun 26

Technology Transforms Pedagogy: ISTE Session

My ISTE session this year was Technology Transforms Pedagogy: Combining the Tools and the Vision. I didn’t want it to be the same as many of the workshops I have given in the past, but at the same time, I still believe what I believe, and so finding a new way to take people through some of these ideas was a challenge.

I’ve found, especially when I’m at a conference in a big hall, getting people to tackle prompts is a challenge. People don’t necessarily know each other, and the big hall isn’t really set up for conversations. But I also didn’t want to just talk at people for an hour.

I also have found that open-ended prompts can sometimes lead people into the weeds quickly. So I decided to try to put some constraints on how people were going to answer and leverage social media to  move the conversation. The prompts we used were all meant to be a series of ten-word answers that would / could serve to help people drill down to a simple statement of purpose while also given them the building blocks for larger answers later. For the folks who had Twitter, I asked them to tweet their answers to the #istetransforms hashtag.

From the feedback I received, people found it to be a powerful way to attack these ideas. The prompts we used were as follows:

  • Schools should help students become…
  • Technology helps me realize my vision by…
  • Technology means that I have to let go of…
  • [A system I employ] can now change in this way…
  • In 2013-14, learning can be…

And as a presenter, what I loved about it, is that it forced me to re-examine how I think about framing these issues, and the incredible stream of ideas that we were able to share and think through will provide me with plenty of things to think about as well.

The issues we face are, without a doubt, far too complex for ten words, but sometimes, working to simply delineate what we think and what we believe will help us figure out what the ideas, policies and systems that follow must be. Thanks to ISTE for a wonderful conference and for the ability to think through and deepen my understanding of what I believe.


 

Jun 15

Co-Curating Our School

Gallery Space created by Isabella and Bernicia

Gallery Space created by Isabella and Bernicia

Most classrooms have bulletin boards. It’s where teachers put up exemplary work – often ten or twenty versions of the same project. And many teachers hang up projects in the hallways. We do that too, but does it go far enough? What if students and teachers treated their school as a living gallery and made more deliberate attempts to curate the school?

We didn’t set out to do that at SLA, but it’s happened. Over the past few years, students had ideas about creating murals or taking over pieces of the school to display their work. Teachers have taken entire walls to do permanent installations, and we’ve even taken over the walls of the city outside our school for art installations.

Living Art project created by the students of Josh Block and Melanie Manuel

Living Art project created by the students of Josh Block and Melanie Manuel

The result is that our school is slowly transforming, wall by wall, to be a showcase of the work and planning and thoughtfulness of the people of SLA. It happened because of an overwhelming desire to say yes to good ideas, rather than a deliberate attempt to say, “Every teacher must take over a 20×20 space outside their classroom,” which probably would have led to disaster.

Instead, we now have a dedicated space for a rotating gallery of student art work. We have an original mosaic of a Philadelphia cityscape hanging on the third floor. The space outside the 5th floor math lab is now filled with equations and formulas.  Our hallways have original bio-wall-structures throughout them. Every year, masks from our Spanish 4 class take over the back wall of the second floor. Walls are being repurposed as canvasses. Ceiling tiles are being redesigned. It’s exciting. The school – always a colorful place – is now really becoming our own.

Created by Chelsea A. Smith as part of her capstone

Created by Chelsea A. Smith as part of her capstone

And now that it has happened organically, we are having to actually step back and think about what it might look like moving forward. A group of underclass students are going to take the art gallery over from the seniors who started it. Teachers and students are now beginning to collaborate on spaces more deliberately. And the school is becoming our gallery. It is exciting to watch.

And as with many things that have happened over the years, this has evolved out of a fundamental belief that students should do real things that matter and that our job, as the adults, is to support rather than to control. And as has happened in the past, we are reverse engineering some questions to ask ourselves about our public spaces as we move forward.

Nick Manton's capstone presentation of his photo project.

Nick Manton’s capstone presentation of his photo project.

  • What is the process by which the community changes our public spaces?
  • How does this enhance the way we live in our spaces?
  • Is this a permanent installation that will stay as is? Or will the space change?
  • If this installation changes or needs care, who cares for it? Who curates it?
  • How can we use the space as a teaching tool for ourselves? For others?

What would happen if all of us treated our schools as galleries to be co-curated by students and teachers? How might we transform the way we think about learning?

Jan 04

Lenses, Not Silos

In the current incarnation of most high schools, classes are essentially silos of information that are not only specific to a discipline, but to a subset of information in that discipline. Not just science, but Biology. Not just mathematics, but Geometry. And so on. That creates a rigidity of thought in both student and teacher.

And while there is a lot of talk about interdisciplinarity these days, too often that just means that science teachers use some math in a project or an English class reads a Civil War novel while the US History teaches about the Reconstruction. But that misses the power and potential of what is possible when we see the intersections of our courses as more than just the occasional overlapping project.

As long as we continue to be bound by the regulations of teaching specific courses, we should strive for the idea of viewing our courses as lenses not silos. In this model, we learn science so that we can apply a scientific lens to the world around us. History becomes about case study and the tools of the historian to learn from a moment in time for what it holds for us now.

And then those tools can transcend the courses when students can ask real questions and solve real problems. This is what leads SLA students to analyze pollution trend data in a science class, overlaying socio-economic data with pollution data onto the map of Philadelphia and asking questions about what they find, or take on a local issue of importance to them in an English classroom and design and implement a direct action campaign to affect change. Or when they do real world data modeling in an Algebra I class, using variable manipulation to solve architecture problems and sports forecasts. Or write essays on identity in Spanish while designing masks that are representations of who they are.

And these projects are not specifically “interdisciplinary” in that they don’t have to be joint projects between two teachers. They are an ancillary benefit of teachers seeing themselves as teachers of kids before being teachers of subjects. It places the student use, application and transferral of the skills and information at a much higher priority than merely learning it. And you know its working when teachers no longer have to be the drivers of interdisciplinarity, rather students draw the connections between what they learn in different classes and bring their ideas to bear on the problems they want and need to solve.

Two ideas for schools to better structure for lens-driven classes:

  1. Stream students in courses, so that students take a group of courses as a cohort. At SLA, students take English, History and Science as a cohort in 9th through 11th grades, so that students and teachers work with the same group of students all year, thus increasing the likelihood that ideas will resonate across classes.
  2. Use grade-wide themes and essential questions as through-lines for students to come back to that are not specific to one discipline over another. At SLA, the 9th grade theme is Identity, the 10th grade is Systems, and the 11th grade theme is Change.

What are your ideas?

Dec 10

NY Times Room for Debate: Federal Standards and Federal Funding

The New York Times Room For Debate asked me if I would weigh in on the following question:

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by 48 states and supported by the Obama administration, have worried liberals who question their quality and conservatives who fear they erode states’ traditional responsibility for education. At the same time, the budget pressure of the impending “fiscal cliff” could reduce federal support for education, which would add to the state and local responsibility.

As these trends collide, Americans can take a step back and ask: Should education standards and funding vary by state?

This gave me the opportunity to talk about an issue that too often goes un-talked about in the current education debate – inequitable education funding. Little did I know I would be debating the question online with folks like Pedro Noguero, Jeb Bush and Rick Hess. Here was the start of my response:

The Common Core standards are the latest federal educational initiative, making the argument that creating national standards will somehow raise achievement nationwide while ignoring what is a far more important state-to-state and district-to-district variability: funding.

Disparate funding levels in the United States are the single most anti-democratic policy in our society. Where children live should not have bearing on how much money is spent on their education. And the variability in funding levels is deep and profound.

The rest is over at The New York Times, please go give it a read. (And wow… the New York Times. I’m kind of really excited. Really, really excited.)

Oct 31

Sucking the Joy

I don’t remember the twitter name of the Wisconsin principal who tweeted out that his elementary school had to “field test” some new state test today. On Halloween. But it was pretty clearly communicated in his 140 characters that he was pretty furious about.

I don’t blame him.

Who thought that was a good idea? Who thought that Halloween is a day to sit kids in silence to take a standardized test? I suppose when you believe in continuous testing (h/t Gary Stager for the term) then one day is like any other – a good day for testing. But for those of us who believe that school is not just about the tests kids take, this is a horrible idea.

It’s not that kids can’t learn on Halloween just because they are in (or thinking about) costumes – they can and they do. It’s that especially on a day like Halloween, schools should give time to learn with joy, celebrate the community, and make sure that every person in the community has a chance to smile. Personally, I think that’s a pretty good agenda for every day, but Halloween is even more special.

SLA spent today doing really interesting work in classes while also dressed as Dr. Who characters and Catwoman and Hunter S. Thompson and Waldo and a host of other costumes. I walked around the building, guitar in hand, dressed in black as Johnny Cash. Kids smiled and every classroom was able to take a moment and guess who I was, and I think I serenaded every class with the chorus of “Ring of Fire.” And at the end of the day, we had a costume fashion show that was fun and joyful and awesome.

But also, work was really done. It was a presentation day in 10th grade BioChemistry, I listened in on some amazing conservations in Mr. Kay’s English class, Mr. Block was helping kids dissect a complicated reading in a lovely housedress and Ms. Garvey’s class was working through equations even as Ms. Garvey was dressed up as a basketball ref. Kids smiled and laughed maybe a little more than a normal day and snapped a lot more photos than usual, but they also were fully engaged in the work of the day.

Some days lend themselves better than other to teaching the idea that we can teach and learn and laugh together in powerful ways. Some days are made to celebrate the idea that we can celebrate our individuality and our community. Halloween is one of those days. But somewhere in Wisconsin, some bureaucrat didn’t care about all that and told a principal that “field testing” some shiny new test was more important. So the kids in that school sat in silence, desks in rows, and took someone else’s test.

What a powerful mistake. What a way to suck the joy from what is supposed to be a joyful day. What a way to send a message to kids that joy and fun and laughter have little to no place in school.

What a powerful example of all the way our education policy in so many states and as a nation is just flat out getting it wrong.