Wednesday, December 10, 2008

One Very Large Bummer

Who’s the dullest? People born between 1961 and 1965 posted the lowest NAEP and SAT scores, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.
And I'm smack dab in the middle of this little demographic. That explains a lot.

hat tip to Joanne Jacobs

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Enthusiasm is the only option

This speech by the late Jimmy Valvano at the 1993 ESPYs is a reminder that life should be filled with laughter, enthusiasm, thought, and genuine emotion.

Our schools deserve people with the spirit and determination of Jimmy Valvano showing kids all the great things that can be accomplished with a life well lived.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Designing your Legacy

I was listening to a recent Podcast from the Stanford University series of Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders and William McDonough was discussing the tombstone of Thomas Jefferson which was designed by Jefferson himself and included the following:

Author of the Declaration of Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
and Father of the University of Virginia

So, what exactly is missing here? McDonough pointed out that there is no mention of the fact that he held down a day job as a two-term President of the United States and didn't even mention it. His point is that Jefferson's legacy had to do with the products that he left behind that were the fruit of his best thinking and designing talents and not the title that he held, important as that was.

So, I got to thinking about my career tombstone (not that I'm hoping to write it real quick). Will I be satisfied with something like, "Principal of Halecrest Elementary"? I'm thinking that I ought to be shooting for something along the lines of Thomas Jefferson...

Designer of a ground breaking school where learning by students and adults is celebrated daily, where expert literacy instructors and students of high character work together to expand their knowledge and become thoughtful members of their local community.

Author of a one-posting-a-month blog read by dozens (OK, it's actually only read by about 4, but why not dream big?)

The first one has some promise. I know I'll be thinking a lot this week about the school that I'm helping design and whether it's worthy of the students that come across our doors and the students that will be coming through our doors for generations to come. And you, what kind of lasting structure are you helping design today?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

This I believe

I recently caught a This I believe segment from NPR and heard the story of William Wissemman, a young man who shared all the life lessons he had learned from solving the Rubiks cube. This got me thinking about all the things I believe about teaching, learning, and education. And with this school year shaping up to be the toughest of my current assignment, I really need the inspiration of my core beliefs to sustain me to do the work well with these teachers and these students at this time. So this I believe.

I believe that whatever you think about learning (learning is fun - learning is a bore) your students will come to believe the same thing.

I believe that many factors affect student's academic growth, but one trumps them all by a landslide: teacher quality.

I believe that high school drop outs are born and bred in elementary school.

I believe that some kids fail because of poor family support, lack of background knowledge and skills, etc, ad nauseum, but I'm going to focus all my energy on what I can control.

I believe that intervention must begin the first day of kindergarten if we want all students to succeed.

I believe some teachers are hungry for the kind of adult learning that will allow them grow, risk, change, and my job is to help create an environment for them to do just that.

I believe that I'm an accomplice to poor teaching every time I fail to confront an ineffective practice.

I believe that the professional teachers deserve my respect, admiration, encouragement, and gratitude and I need to go out of my way to give them everything that they need.

I believe that reading and writing are joyful, creative activities that are motivating in themselves.

I believe that reading and writing sometimes can be drudgery and hard work and we have to show kids how to persevere through those times as well.

I believe that every class and every teacher should be good enough for my own children or I need to do something to make that so.

Just writing these out has encouraged me to stay the course. I highly recommend some others join the fray and share their thoughts as well. So, what do you believe?

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Language of Science

Here's an excellent article on a study of the teaching of science by simplifying the language before approaching the content.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Urgency Alert

After seeing CST and API scores drop for the first time in four years, I've been doing a lot of soul searching. Although, some would say it's not all about the test scores, when the percentage of students who are proficient in math drops at every grade level, then I don't see how anyone could characterize that year as a total success even if the kids left for summer vacation with smiles on their faces.

Today, we kicked off the year with a Principal training led by Andy Platt, co-author of Skillful Leader II. One item in his book that caught my attention above everything else was a descriptor for urgency. Here's a paraphrase, "If you have a teacher at your school, that you would consciously avoid putting your child into her class, you need to take action". Ouch! Hey, my kids attend my school and the above statement is true for me. This thought has jolted me into being resolved to confront any performance that is less than excellent in myself, our teachers, staff, and students.

My goal is to help build a school that is worthy of my own children... right now! How's that for urgency?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Book Talks Hit the Mark

I've recently discovered another great teacher blog called The Reading Zone. Stop by for great book reviews on children's books and other fine writing. This fired-up teacher makes a great point about the best way to encourage joyful summer reading. Here's my favorite line.
I do find it interesting that the newest book on the list seems to be the most-read. Yet it is also the longest book! It just shows what a great book talk can do for a book. Kids who would never choose a long book on their own chose it based on the summary I gave. Summer reading lists need to be booktalked!

We have found the same thing to be true. Students will jump all over books with a simple and engaging introduction by an enthusiastic reader.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Time for Clarifying

The long stretch of summer is now coming to a sudden halt on Monday. It's time to winnow down the many ideas floating around in my head to focus on the few Mission Critical initiatives that need to be the theme for my work this year. At this time, my overarching goal is to improve the professional dialogue of teachers and staff with the aim of improving practice. There are some other large content changes (introducing Singapore math across campus and moving from Tungsten Benchmark Assessments to MAPS assessments to name two large elephants), however I can't shake the sense that changing the way teachers think and learn together will have the most dramatic and long term benefit for our school.

This is my favorite time of the year as it affords the rarity of large chunks of uninterrupted time to drink, think, and plan.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

That's what I meant to say

Jay Matthews of the Washington Post has some clear thoughts on the Achievement Gap discussion that just plain make a lot of sense. Citing a study by the Fordham Institute about the impact of NCLB on high-achievers, Matthews thinks the achievement gap focus leads to some strange outcomes.

Here are some ways the gap could narrow: Low-income scores improve but high-incomes scores don't; low-income scores don't change but high-income scores drop; low-income scores drop but high-income scores drop even more. In each of those cases of gap-narrowing, something bad is happening.

Exactly! Narrowing the gap while improving all levels of performance is the obvious preference, but very difficult to attain. He has a better suggestion:

While we are at it, why not curtail all this achievement-gap talk? Let's focus instead on the progress of every child, no matter if she or he starts the year two grades behind classmates or two grades ahead. All children deserve a chance to climb as high as they can.

This is a much healthier approach to school improvement than closing the gap. The only aspect that really ticks me off about this is that my friend and I will need to scrap our idea to publish a breakthrough tome on the subject:

Drop the Top
Closing the Achievement Gap by bringing the high achievers down to size so we can all be in the same boat together (Then we'll have more people to bail the water out of that boat)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Student ownership of learning

In this excellent article by Joe Paterno (yes, the football coach) he expresses the joy of learning to read Virgil in Latin during his high school days and has this insight from his instructor that describes the gradual release of responsibility of learning to the student:

Starting from his first day as a teacher, Father Bermingham always kept an eye out for kids who had begun what he calls the most important task in education: their “self-education.” He meant kids who showed signs of taking responsibility for their own expansion instead of waiting for teachers to do it for them. Even the most talented teacher can try what he or she thinks is “teaching,” but it won’t really take unless the student takes charge of the more important job: learning.

What an excellent goal for every teacher to focus on as the new year gets underway.

(HT to kitchen table math, the sequel)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Isolation should be a thing of the past

Reading David Mccullough's fine book The Great Bridge I've come to learn about some amazing feats of engineering of the late 19th century. Washington Roebling, the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge needed to bury two mammoth towers on each side of the East River and to do this, he used pneumatic caissons. This technology was in its infancy at that time, but there was another engineer, James Eads who was using the same strategy while building a bridge over the Mississippi at St. Louis. The caissons, pictured above were a hollow structure that was lowered to the bottom of the river, then filled with compressed air to drive the water out and allow the laborers to dig deeper into the waterway's floor. The problem that was soon found out on Eads' project is that workers began to get sick from their exposure to the compressed air. Some even died. They were suffering from what later would be termed "The Bends". What's interesting is that Roebling visited Eads' site before starting on his project and was aware of the problems he was facing, but because of fierce competition, pride, and distances not easily overcome, the men did not share notes and details about their experiences. This isolation exacerbated the problem and led to far more suffering than necessary. When I picture these workers far below the surface, working in isolation in these stuffy enclosures, I think about teachers and schools. Traditionally, teachers and schools have been just as isolated as these laborers, but in today's environment, that isolation is no longer necessary. Because of modern tools (video tape, Internet to name just two) we can learn about each others' successes and failures and all improve because of it. The problem is that too many of us are satisfied to wallow in our lonely state for a host of reasons. When we struggle with students who aren't learning, we should eagerly seek out teachers and schools who have had breakthroughs with similar students. Or, we can learn the hard way and the slow way and lose a few more kids in the process.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

It's our fault! I tried to tell you.

A recent study from the Public Policy Institute of California demonstrates that failing the California high school exit exam can be predicted by 4th grade. Here is one of their pearls.

The study suggests that shifting resources to struggling students in early grades will be a more effective way to improve achievement than the state’s current approach of focusing on students in the last year of high school.

My educational response to this brilliant finding would be, "DUH"! And here's another nugget we've been talking about for a couple years now.

Help with reading in early grades would benefit students in all other subjects, a particularly important benefit for English learners.

Of course, I'm convinced starting in 4th grade is way too late. Schools should start in kindergarten, and give parents plenty of resources to do the one thing that makes a difference before school: read to their child 20 minutes a day. Maybe we also ought to get out the CAHSEE blueprints for math and language arts and make sure our kids have mastered all the prerequisite skills embedded in that test before leaving our doors.

A year worthy of our gifts

Seth Godin makes me consider whether our efforts are worthy of the privileges that we enjoy.

I take so much for granted. Perhaps you do as well. To be here, in this moment, with these resources. To have not just our health but the knowledge and the tools and the infrastructure. What a waste.

If I hadn’t had those breaks, if there weren’t all those people who had sacrificed or helped or just stayed out of my way... what then? Would I even have had a shot at this?

What if this were my last post? Would this post be worthy?

So, what if 2008-09 is our last chance to lead Halecrest. Will we give our best to show our appreciation for all the benefits and opportunities that we enjoy at this school? Let it not be said at the end of the next school year that we wasted the opportunity. Many new and exciting ideas are being considered and I think the time to make some bold moves is upon us.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

After the fact treatment

Patterson, et al in Influencer The Power to Change Anything begin their book by describing the typical response to a difficult problem. They describe it as "after-the-fact" treatment. Like the scourge of AIDS where treatment of the disease's effects gets much wider attention than treatment of its causes, we often attack problems by trying to clean up something after the damage is done.

In education, I see this as the attempt to shrink the learning gaps in middle school and high school. We must start in kindergarten, when we still have a chance to stem the tide. Indeed, the more effective we are at getting parents and preschools to do a few simple behaviors (most notably - Read to their children 20 minutes a day) will allow us to eradicate the number of students reading below grade level to zero!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Summer Reading

Since I have at least one more loooooong summer before our district goes to a common calendar, I'm breathlessly awaiting the chance to hang out with the family and explore our usual vacation spots as well as curl up with a few good reads. Here are some selections that I'm planning on digging into, and in some cases, have already started.

This book gives you the criteria by which ideas have been made memorable and has application as a school leader and classroom instructor. I mean, I know I sure would like the staff to remember what I said once in a while. Hopefully I can learn to present well thought out, compelling initiatives that actually get implemented for a change.

This book is a tip from Scott McLeod who invited folks to a summer chat on its implications. I browsed through the first few pages at the bookstore and couldn't resist the purchase. This will help me exert profound influence over everyone in my sphere, ideally with some of the sticky ideas I came up with because of the first book. It's all part of my master plan...

This gem is a gift from one of my outstanding teachers. Having already perused the first few pages, the subject is obviously sobering and humbling. It is needful to often get out of the small confines of one's immediate circumstances and understand the profound suffering that so many are facing because of this deadly disease.
Stay tuned for a few more selections coming up. Does anyone have any suggestions for more enlightening reading this summer?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

My best day ever...well pretty close

Despite a frantic work day that included lots of preparation for end of the year activities, I had a great day because it was Twin Day at our school and my twin was a cute little 1st grader named Emily who was tickled pink to be my twin; she also just happens to be my daughter. Now, I had way too many people remind me that I should cherish this moment since she'll soon avoid me like the plague any day now. So, although I refuse to buy into their cynicism, I have fully enjoyed being her favorite twin for this day at least and I've got the photos to blackmail her if she starts getting nasty around Middle School.

Literacy in the content areas

Two of my favorite teacher bloggers are crying foul about the literacy first, last, and only folks. Go read their posts here and here and let them know you feel their pain and love their content, which is one of the greatest keys for developing fully mature literacy skills, beginning... in the womb!

Everybody who issomebody loves assessment

You see, I'm not the only one who is obsessed with the proper role of assessment. Scott McLeod gives a logical case for assessing before instruction, just in case your little learners already know what you're trying to teach 'em. The concept is so simple and elegant, however it opens up such a can of worms. If they already know it, now what do I do? Actually, it opens up a world of engagement and enthusiastic students who can go on to explore something new and challenging and in greater depth. So, jump right in and start assessing Day one!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Thinking About Math

Here's a good article to jog our thinking about math instruction next year. It advocates the death of the textbook, and I say, Here Here! I'd love to attend the funeral. These folks claim that our math textbooks lack coherence. You think so? You need a bloody PhD in calculus to understand some of those explanations. Good 'ol Singapore Math gets another nod. We've got some serious work to do to improve the quality of our overall mathematical reasoning of our students.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Got You

I know it's sneaky and sinister, but I actually want my son to spend his time in worthwhile activities so sometimes I resort to a little trickery. My son loves DS games and I'm a little reluctant to give him too much time on the ADHD producing machines, but there are some games with redeeming qualities. One such game is Professor Layton and the Curious Village . This game is full of puzzles and logical challenges that need to be solved to reach the goal. He bought it hook line and sinker. He says the game is challenging and interesting, which is music to my ears. He probably doesn't even know that he is learning! Actually, he knows my evil plots, but he plays along anyway so he can get some time with Pokemon and Mario Karts. I'll take the trade off for now.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Losing is Underrated

After quite a sabbatical, I'm back on the theme of competition and, for my money, one of the great benefits of competition that is not appreciated nearly enough is the benefit of losing. Having been a loser all my life, I've realized that there is a lot more to be gained by losing than winning. Think about it. Losers are learners. They are always looking for ways to improve and get better. There is always someone just a little better to shoot for that next goal and there is a wealth of feedback in the air from all those know-it-alls who can help you learn from your many mistakes. So, may all of us losers stick together knowing that we are actually in the driving seat for future stellar performance. Just be careful, loser friends, because if you apply all those lessons from learning you might just find yourself on the winning side someday and then all the problems start.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The benefits of competition

After reading this post from Jason Dyer, guest blogger at Dangerously Irrelevant, and the start of our adrenaline inducing Reading Challenge, I began thinking about why I love competition so much. I remember running in a relay race one summer in junior high. I got the baton as the last runner and was well behind the first place runner, however right behind me was Ron, a monster combination of speed and power. My only goal was to keep as far away from Ron as I could. I took off with my eyes in the rear view mirror running like crazy. Not only did I somehow keep Ron from catching me, but being spurred on by his menacing presence I shot past the other fellow who had the lead going into the final and our team won the race. My point is that running in the canyon behind my house could never have produced the effort and stamina I exerted that day because of my little friend called "competition". Running against others motivated and inspired me to do things I didn't think possible.

The eventual goal of competition is to compete with yourself, however sometimes one needs to measure oneself against ones "peers" to determine if you've really reached the limits of your potential. That picture of Jesse Owens reminds me of the Germans in Berlin in1936 who thought quite highly of themselves and were humbled by the feats of the amazing Owens.

So, for starters, competition spurs us on to achieve to our highest potential and it also helps us gauge our high achievement against standards outside of ourselves, thus showing us what is truly possible. And finally, competition is a whole lot of fun. Everybody gets excited and that enthusiasm and energy help build bigger and better accomplishments for everyone. I think I've got a lot more to say about this topic, but I need an early night's sleep or I wont' even be able to beat a 1st grader in a race to the cafeteria lines.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Prisons and Schools

California is having quite the budget deficit for the coming year, but one segment of our state government is expecting another raise (5% proposed for 2007-08). While most schools are sending layoff notifications to their teachers and plenty of other staff, our prison guards will be offered that 5% raise if the legislators approve the Governor's last best offer. This raise will add to their base salary that ranges from $45,00 to $70,000, which was supplemented by an average of $16,000 per employee during the 2006-07 fiscal year. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm very happy we have lots of folks willing and able to handle the prisons. That's not a job I would personally volunteer for. However, one has to wonder if the current offer is necessary in dire financial times when the state is receiving 130,000 applicants a year for these much sought after positions. Could it be that a sound investment in education might have a positive effect on keeping some folks out of prison?

Reason #285...

... why number #1 son should be attending Halecrest in the fall.

Dad, we did a creative writing assignment today.

Really, son what would that be?

Our teacher told us to write out our class rules in cursive.

And your teacher called this Creative Writing?


Well, there you have it. I think I'll go bang my head against the wall.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Chart Mutiny

My teachers can tell you that I really love charts filled with data. They are all so neat and orderly and, at a glance, I can tell if we are on track as a school and where we might need to give more attention. However, I'm willing to chuck the infamous reading charts* if my teachers can guarantee a positive response on the following three questions about reading from every student:

  1. Have you ever secretly read under your desk in school because the teacher was boring and you were dying to finish the book you were reading?
  2. Have you eve been scolded for reading at the dinner table?
  3. Have you ever read secretly under the covers after being told to go to bed?

These questions were created by the students of Rafe Esquith who shares this rubric in his excellent book, Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire. His point is that students who are so engaged in reading that is takes a prominent place in their lives are what we ought to be developing, and I wholeheartedly agree. That's the beauty of our upcoming Halecrest Reading Challenge. I can't wait to see more and more kids get excited about books and begin to eat, drink, and sleep reading.

*OK, I won't actually chuck the charts, but I might lay off the teacher who can prove her students' worth with the questions.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

My second conclusion

Coming to Elementary from Secondary Education, I have been slow to make pronouncements about what is needed in all classrooms. Some of my teachers would probably disagree with that "slow to make pronouncements" statement. If they had any guts they would read this blog and share their opinions with the world - or at least my three readers (including me). After my first couple years, I came to my first conclusion. Reading widely through read alouds, guided reading, and indpendent reading is the most crucial element of literacy development. I've written about before several times in this space.

So, now nearly four years into this job, I've come to my second momentous conclusion. You can only teach reading well if you have large amounts of time in small group instruction. That may be a no brainer for some of you, but it has become crystal clear to me in the past few months as we have focused on good reading instruction at our school. The classes where students progress the most always have some form of small group instruction that allows the teacher time to get to know the students as readers and target the instruction at a variety of levels. Well, there you have it, my second commandment. Now, how to help all teachers incorporate that good small group instruction into their routines is the next challenge.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Coaching through results

How does the Principal serve as the instructional leader with a collection of teachers who are more diverse than any group of 6th graders could ever be? One thing that I think is most effective in helping each teacher grow is to remember the line from Jerry Maguire, "Show me the Results". Well, that's what he would have said if he were the Principal talking to his teachers. Here's how this works out in a school.

If you are a teacher who gets positive results (Every child grows at least one year's worth of growth or more in a year) then I will be your champion and cheerleader and would like to sit down with you to discuss the secrets of your success. Let's figure out what you do that works and hey, would you be willing to sit down with one other teacher and teach them a thing or two about a thing or two? Get these people out sharing the sunshine. Help them find the eager ones that want to learn something so they don't get discouraged by the Champions of Excuse.

If you are a teacher who believes that your way is the right way and, as one Board member from a previous district once was heard stating, "Research never proved anything". No problem! Ignore all the staff development that I've been shoving down your throat. Don't implement anything suggested by any one of those experts we've been reading, but "Show me the Results". That's right. You're not responsible for implementing the latest and greatest, you're just responsible for the positive results described above. So, put up or __________.

These are the two extreme types on our campus. There are all sorts of shades of variance that demand unique and thoughtful responses, but keeping everyone focused on results that everyone is pursuing helps the Principal decide where time and energy can be invested for the greatest result.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Why what we're doing today is not good enough

As the build up to the AFC championship was in full force this week (I've finally got over the Chargers sad ending), I read a quote from a player from the Patriots who said, "If we're not getting better, we're falling behind", or something to that effect. I think the truth behind that statement is applicable in any area of life. When we start skating through relationships, work, exercise, fill in the blank, we will start to lose ground. Achieving progress and growth requires effort just to maintain past improvement and even more effort to get even higher. That's one of the reasons why leading Halecrest can be a tricky proposition.

We are doing pretty well by most people's standards, however I think it has been said that the enemy of the great is the good. Also, we are just a few months of complacency away from falling back and finishing the year scratching our heads wondering what happened. Every student, every teacher, every employee, including this Principal, should be looking for ways to do things better tomorrow. Otherwise we all stop learning and we're like the person who could be sitting on that boat on the river. Without picking up a paddle and rowing, you're just going to float downstream with the current. Eventually that current might take you to a place like this one, which wouldn't be all that pretty an ending.