Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When Your Disadvantages Prove to be an Advantage

New York Times archives

Why do we complain so much about defeat or disadvantage or difficulty?

It is absolutely true that we all benefit from overcoming challenges, therefore we should not shrink in the face of insurmountable odds and difficult tasks and we should be very leery when life is smooth, and peaceful and pleasant.

Two examples...

William Howard Taft

Theodore Roosevelt

William Howard Taft grew to be over 300 pounds and faced several bouts of illness while serving in the Philippines before returning to the US to work on Roosevelt's cabinet and eventually succeed him as President. His physical state deteriorated over years of indulgence and lack of physical exertion.
Teddy Roosevelt, on the other hand, was the picture of health and vitality who regularly took foreign ambassadors and reporters through the woods of Washington DC on rigorous hikes where the only rule was you must go straight over whatever was in your path.  He also was known to dabble in boxing and other combat sports.

So, how did these men start the race?

One of them was the picture of strength and youthful vigor standing over 6 ft tall,  strong and athletic  the quintessential high school quarterback who probably dated the head cheerleader.

The other was sickly as a youth, suffering frequent and severe asthma attacks that nearly led to death.

William Howard Taft is the first example, and Teddy Roosevelt the second.

The lesson here is that it was not the advantages or disadvantages of the hand that they were dealt, but how they responded to them that matters.  William Howard Taft, blessed with physical size, strength, and vitality, wasted away those physical gifts through a life of leisure and indulgence.

Teddy Roosevelt, through the mentorship of his father, attacked his weakness with vigor, dedicating himself to disciplined and rigorous exercise and strength training that helped shape him both physically and mentally.

The lessons are obvious. Encourage your students to do two things in honor of Presidents Taft and Roosevelt.

Don't fret because of difficulty or challenge, but embrace it and improve through disciplined effort.
Don't take for granted your strengths, but seek always to improve and build on the foundation you have been gifted.

What about you, do you have any examples of determination in the face of challenge?  I'm afraid we can all point out plenty of examples of failure in the face of great promise.


Reference: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Study Smarter

Here's a summary of research on effective study techniques alluded to by John Hattie at the Visible Learning Conference.  The big winners are:

Dunlosky and colleagues report that spreading out your studying over time and quizzing yourself on material before the big test are highly effective learning strategies. Both techniques have been shown to boost students’ performance across many different kinds of tests, and their effectiveness has been repeatedly demonstrated for students of all ages.

Teachers, parents, and students would be wise to focus on these strategies for learning instead of the less effective strategies like summarizing and highlighting.  Here's the full study:

Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology

Monday, July 14, 2014

6 Qualities of a Great Follower

Leadership is a popular topic.  I mean, who doesn't secretly or not-so-secretly want to be known as a great leader?  When we read the stories of the past, we all see ourselves as the one who would be sitting in the same seat as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, or Marie Curie.  But why so little love for the follower?  After all, each of these leaders would be nothing without a legion of faithful and gifted followers.

This summer I had the opportunity to join my son on a hike at Philmont Ranch in New Mexico.  We went on this journey with my son's boy scout troop.  There were 20 hikers total and I place myself squarely in the follower role.  I don't like, enjoy, nor have much knowledge about hiking and camping so I was looking to my leaders to make this a positive endurable experience.  During this 13 day journey of 75 miles where we ascended and descended 4000 feet I learned some lessons about how to  be a good follower.  I hope these will help you as you contemplate your critical role as a follower.

1.  Ask questions to become better informed

I was completely at the mercy of our lead navigator and guide.  At the outset, I wasn't clear about our daily direction or course and was not always given the information that I felt would help me attack each day with confidence.  The more I asked questions, the better I understood the overall scope of our trek and the daily expectations of the trail.  By asking questions, I helped our leaders see what was clear and ambiguous about our journey. I found the leader began to anticipate our questions as the adventure continued and provide the kind of information that we found helpful.  If I had continued in silence, all of us would have been less comfortable and informed.  Great followers ask questions to be informed and "in the know"

2.  Before a decision is made, give your open and honest opinions freely

There came several times during our hike that we had to make decisions about which trail to take or which activity we would attempt.  During those times I stated my preference or asked clarifying questions as did others.   Great followers offer their opinions with openness, honest, and respect.

3.  After the decision is made, enthusiastically embrace the decision and help make it successful

Unless the decision is not the decision you preferred!  Actually this last statement IS NOT a trait of a good follower.  Remember, you are the follower, not the leader.   The leaders is the decision maker and, if you want to be a great follower, from time to time you will need to invest your energy and enthusiasm in a decision that you did not wholeheartedly endorse.  A good follower will put his head down and make every effort to see this course through successfully.  Great followers implement decisions even those for which they disagree, as if it was their decision.

4.  Allow yourself to be influenced by the passions of your leader.

Did I mention that I don't like hiking and camping?   However, I noticed that most of the participants of this adventure were truly excited and enthusiastic about this opportunity so it got me wondering, "What is it about hiking and camping that entices these men so much?"  I tried to maintain a positive attitude (very challenging) and keep my grumbling and complaining to a minimum (didn't do so well there!).  In the end, I tasted a little of the feeling of accomplishment and sense of adventure that seems to drive these fellas.  I won't say that I'm planning a trek into the Sierras with a toothbrush and a space blanket, but at least I look back on our trip with some fondness for what we overcame and experienced.  Great followers allow themselves to be influenced by their leaders.

5.  Take initiative to take responsibilities

It's very easy to be a passive follower.  It's possible to only do what you are required to do or directly asked to do.  You won't really get any grief for this approach as no one is expecting more.  However, I noticed there was no shortage of tasks to be accomplished so I took it upon myself to learn how to put up and take down the bear bags (food and smellables that needed to be put up in bags 30-50 feet in the air so the bears wouldn't come visit our camp).   Doing this one small task made our camp set up and take down go a little smoother and it felt satisfying to contribute something beyond the minimum.  Great followers take initiative and learn new skills.

6.  Provide aid and assistance to your peers.

A leader can't be every where at all times.  Our daily hiking regimen meant that we were hiking in a single file line with 10 people back to back.  One one treacherous hike we were descending a narrow canyon trail that had some tricky spots.  One of our hikers was struggling and anxious on his way down.  He was assisted for a couple miles by a dad who took it upon himself to provide individual guidance, modeling, and encouragement.  This task could not have been done by the leader even if he wanted to since he was out front navigating our direction.  This follower (Mr. Warmbier below) provided the perfect assistance for our colleague and made the descent more effective and smooth for the whole squad.  Great followers help one another to strengthen our collective effort.

As we start the 2014-15 school year, it would be a good time to review the qualities of a follower that we embody.  Whether you are a teacher following lead teachers or a principal, whether you are a principal following a superintendent or cabinet, it would behoove us all to be great followers, which will encourage our leaders to be better leaders and make our organizations and schools stronger overall.  Just think what we can accomplish through the efforts of a legion of Stellar followers!  After all, you won't be able to see views like this without a little hardship, dedication, and teamwork!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Social Media Journey of Camarena Elementary

Incredible tools exist today that allow schools to build a stronger partnership with their community.  When we opened Camarena Elementary in July 2013 I was eager to utilize these tools to connect with our families, believing that vibrant two way communication would be critical to growing and developing a healthy school culture.  Though I didn't have a strategy at the outset, in retrospective there were several key steps that I took along the way to build our social media presence.

Step 1 Wordpress Blog. 
Six months before opening our school we created our school website and invited parents to connect and engage with us as we crafted our plan for opening day.  This proved to be an excellent way to communicate with our constituents before we had a physical building to call our own. After our first school year we have received over 1,000 comments and questions via the school website. The ease of posting and connecting on the Wordpress platform made for a simple way to stay connected.  Here's a screenshot of our first post:

Step 2 Expose staff to power of social tools. 
At our opening staff meeting last June, I asked the teachers to work together and post a picture on Twitter of a learning space around campus. This gave our teachers a chance to play with this tool. There was no concrete requirement that teachers actively join Twitter, but there was an expectation that they explore and experiment with various forms of social media.  The result was that we had about a dozen teachers who became consistent users of Twitter for professional learning.  Some started initially then pulled back because of the addicting nature of Twitter, however they saw the power of this resource for professional learning.  Here is one of those tweets from our first day:

Step 3 Create and broadcast a hashtag. 
We decided the #camlearns hashtag would be our coordinating tagline. This made it easy for us to share ideas and follow the thinking of one another. One teacher also created a Twitter list of Camarena teachers which was another way for us to follow the professional conversation and learning among peers.

Step 4 Combine #camlearns hashtag through Instagram and Wordpress via IFTTT.
People love to see their kids working at school. For parents who can't attend school regularly, we wanted to open the doors of our classrooms so that parents could connect with their kids. First, I created a photo blog on Wordpess, then used IFTTT to create a menu that connected every Instragram post using the #camlearns tag to simultaneously post to the Wordpress site.  Initially I was the only person who made posts, but as the year continued we saw more and more staff and parents postings.  For teacher appreciation day we posted pictures of teachers around campus and encouraged parents and students to take selfies with their teacher and post to twitter or instagram using the #camlearns hashtag and gradually we started to get more traction from the community.  At our final event of the year, a 5K color run, several families and staff contributed to the hashtag and community blog.

Step 5 Student Curated Twitter Account
Finally, I had started a school twitter account that was slow picking up followers so the last quarter of the year, I assigned a student to curate the account one week at a time. (with parent permission).  We had students from 1st grade to 6th sharing what they were learning and thinking about during the school day and started to gain some followers and retweets of our school Twitter account.  The kids caught on fast:

All of these attempts have slowly grown our social media life with our entire community.  I can't encourage you enough to jump in at some point by starting with your purpose.  What are you hoping to gain by investing your time in social media?  For me, the primary purpose is to connect our families and community with the daily work of students - to open a window to the hard work and accomplishments of students fall day long.  This helps break down the traditional isolation of the classroom.  Also, I want to tell our story of Camarena Elementary from the point of view of students, staff, and parents.  In this way we take control of the narrative that is told about Camarena Elementary.  Feel free to share your social media journey as well so we can add some new and fresh ideas to our plans for 2014-15



Saturday, May 10, 2014

Making Misconceptions Visible

Learning occurs when misconceptions are revealed, addressed and overcome.  For this to happen, teachers must be comfortable and patient to first surface those misconceptions then do the challenging work of probing student thinking to help guide them to their error and a path toward a clearer, more correct understanding.

At Camarena Elementary, teachers are embracing this approach by exposing student error front and center and questioning the student's faulty thinking, engaging in whole class dialogue to bridge the gap between current misconceptions and the target skill or concept.  I observed this a few weeks ago in Kirsten Mena's class where she masterfully accepted a student's erroneous thinking in math and led the class to gently and respectfully probe that wrong answer until the student in question finally raised his hand to state, "I respectfully disagree with myself..."  Brilliant!  This is far superior to simply correcting error and giving the student the right answer.  Comprehension and understanding are highly doubtful in that second example.

This exchange reminded me of an example in Bob Sutton's book Scaling Up Excellence.  He relayed a story of someone touring an engineers meeting at Google where there was vigorous debate about the merits of some particular course of action where higher level Google employees were questioning and being challenged by lower level engineers on this particular project.  In the end, the senior executive had been persuaded and he stated, "I now strongly disagree with myself".

From Google to Camarena Elementary, the environment where ideas are debated and challenged can only lead to more learning and deeper understanding.  When misconceptions are left unchallenged and left alone, students will remain in the dark and will have something worse than the wrong answer.  They will think that their wrong answer is actually the right answer and will go on practicing error in happy oblivion!  So, find those misconceptions, bring them into the light and lead your students to problem solve, probe, and reason until they are able to justify clearly and precisely the thinking you are pursuing.

What do you think?  How do you create an atmosphere of healthy debate and helpful critique?

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

What's the Main Idea? Bla Bla Bla

I have for years found the question, "What's the main idea?" unhelpful, inauthentic, and downright sinister and damaging.  OK, that might be a little over the top, so let me give you three details to prove my point! Actually, don't look for those details because you won't find them.  What I find is that authors don't write to make just one singular point. (unless they are writing nauseating textbooks sold for millions of dollars to school districts)

For example, is there a main idea in Romeo and Juliet?  There are themes a-plenty, but not a main idea with a singular purpose.  Sure, you could summarize the boo,  "Two confused teenagers (sorry redundant adjectives here) fall in love against family's wishes and end badly".  But, is that all that William Shakespeare was trying to get his readers to understand and appreciate?  Hardly!

So,  if we shouldn't ask about the main idea and supporting details, what should we ask?  Well, first of all it is important to know that articles and texts often make claims and back those claims with evidence and examples, therefore it is important for students to know the difference between a claim an evidence that backs up that claim.  As for how to get students invested in the author's intent,  Vicki Vinton wrote an excellent post about an Expeditionary Learning lesson on Esperanza Rising.  In the comments of that post, she posed the following question:

I’ve been finding that it really makes a difference if we ask kids what they think the writer wanted them to understand, versus what’s the main idea or the important details.

This questions causes the reader to consider that there is an actual human being directing the scope and purpose of the text, who might actually be trying to tell them something important, interesting, or even entertaining.  It also allows for a much richer discussion that will not simply contain that one perfect answer that is residing inside the questioner's head.  What do you think?  What are the questions you ask to get students to engage with a text and more completely understand what the author was trying to accomplish. In case my thinking was unclear, maybe this will help.

The main idea of this blog post was.

A.  Main idea is an illusion fostered by the Platonic school of philosophy
B.  Textbooks are written by robots
C.  Vicki Vinton - one smart lady
D.  Questions are kind of important

Monday, March 03, 2014

Feedback is a Gift, so Spread it Around

A colleague recently gave me some unsolicited, direct feedback about my poor facilitation skills, and I'm not gonna lie - It hurt!  Actually, I'm very grateful as it helped me reflect on behavior that I had NO IDEA was going on - and I consider myself a reflective fellow (he said, humbly").  However, this reminded me of a quote that Russ Roberts of Econtalk is fond of quoting from Richard Feynman, "The most important thing is not to fool yourself, and  you are very easy to fool."

As a Principal, I give a lot of feedback and getting a taste of that feedback makes me want to give direct and clear feedback to others more and more.  True professionals want to improve their craft and get better and they will only benefit from honest feedback provided in an environment that is safe and supportive.   I will definitely press forward to give clear, specific, and actionable feedback to others and gladly solicit that feedback for myself.