Friday, November 9, 2018

How much is time worth?

We can invest our time in many ways.

For the last several days, thirty-one Novi Community School District staff members and I have invested about 90 hours in, with, and for 367 Novi Middle School students on their trip to Washington DC. We left at 5:00 AM on a rainy Tuesday morning and will return home around midnight Friday night.

We’ve seen a lot.

Art galleries.

But was the time worth it?

The thirty-one Novi staff members think so. As do I.

But why exactly?

The answer is complicated.

If the goal was to ensure that our students learned history and civics and the importance of informed citizens participating in their democracy, we probably failed.

That’s not to say that what we did had no impact on their knowledge of our country or our government. But those of us who are much older are still trying to figure out how democracy and debate and civic participation work.

And they are in 8th grade.

If the goal was to inspire our students by exposing them to the American spirit as seen in the Museum of American History or the Air and Space Museum or the Museum of African American History and Culture, we probably failed. These students saw a lot on their visit but measuring the impact of seeing the Spirit of St. Louis airplane or the flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner is difficult.

And they are in 8th grade.

Still, at times one could sense that these students were trying to figure things out.

When we saw the name of a former Novi resident on the Vietnam War Memorial or the names of fallen police officers at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, these students were amazingly reflective.

When we stood inside the US Capitol Rotunda, these students were filled with awe.

When our guide shared the story of September 11, 2001, at the Pentagon Memorial and we stood over the youngest victim’s marker, I had a sense they were really trying to sort out the world in which we live.

This trip is about those things. But it is about other things as well.

One of the most important parts of this trip is for these 367 students to see that there are adults who care deeply for them. Not because of their grades or their looks or their families.

No. These adults care for these 367 students because each one is unique and challenging and funny and young. And these adults want them to have a chance in this world.

And that is why these adults invest almost 90 hours of their lives. So that these young adults can have a foundation on which to build their lives. These adults invest so that these young students can have memories that they may use to continue to build our world.

Time well invested.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

To the parents of Bus #5

November 6th is Election Day.

Please vote.

November 6th is also the day that I board a bus bound for Washington DC.

I might add that also with me on this bus - Bus #5 - will be 3 teachers and 47 8th grade students. 

Please send good thoughts our way.

We are part of the Novi Middle School 8th grade trip.
  • 8 buses
  • 27 teachers
  • 1 Assistant Principal
  • 1 school police liaison officer
  • 1 Board of Education member
  • 1 school nurse
  • And me - the Novi Community School District Superintendent. 
We board buses at 5:00 AM Tuesday, November 6th, and return home by midnight on Friday, November 10th. Over 350 8th graders and their chaperones on a four-day journey to Washington DC and back.

I have been on this trip five previous times. On my first trip in 2012, a norovirus swept through our merry band of travelers. Let me just say it was not pretty.

I am sure it will not happen again.

Why do we do this?

To learn history, of course. To see the US Constitution displayed in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building. To see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. To think and reflect on Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War Memorial.

Your sons and daughters can at times be very reflective, understand the enormity of a moment, see with clarity how what they are studying about history in Novi, Michigan, connects with the larger world they live in.

But, at times, we are reminded that they are 8th graders. 

On one trip, as we sat in Ford's Theater, a student listened to the guide and asked earnestly, "Wasn't President Lincoln shot in a theater?" The answer, of course, was "Yes. Yes President Lincoln was shot in a theater. In fact, he was shot in this very theater."

So, at times, the lessons of history are not as clear as we think them to be.

And that is when I am reminded that there are other purposes for this trip.

The Washington DC trip is educational.

But it is also about other things.

It is about 8th grade students learning to navigate social situations on a bus for ten to twelve hours. It is about 8th grade students keeping track of their own suitcase. It is about 8th grade students listening to adults who are not their parents. It is about 8th grade students problem solving how to charge a phone. It is about 8th grade students being with friends.

I am glad that our students - your sons and daughters - have this chance, can experience this trip in this way.

It will provide lasting memories.

And, if we are lucky, it will reinforce that we are fortunate to have each other.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Wishes can come true

Every year . . .

People come from all over town to adorn me with
scraps of paper, tags, bits of fabric, snippets of yarn,
and the occasional gym sock.
Each offering represents a dream, a desire, a longing. . .

They're all hopes for something better.
Katherine Applegate

In the Novi Community School District, we have wishes. For our students. for our colleagues. For ourselves. 

In August, at the beginning of our school year, we started our school year thinking about what our wishes for the school year would be. I asked our staff to write down their wishes. 

But now, eight weeks into the school year it is sometimes hard to remember what we wished for in August. Early mornings, late nights, grading papers, walking the dog, dropping off and picking up children, remembering to do the laundry, trying to remember everyone's name.

Life takes a toll.

So today, October 23rd, was our first Novi WishTree Day of the year. It was a day for the Novi Community School District staff to remember and reflect on our wishes for the school year and to recommit to working to make them come true.

Bob Marley (yes that Bob Marley) is reported to have once said, "The people who are trying to make this world worse off aren't taking a day off. How can I?"

In that spirit, our Novi WishTree Day was a chance for our Novi staff to wish again on this school year. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Some things work . . . Some things do not

We know what works and, just as importantly, what doesn't work.

(That doesn't mean that new ideas, new ways of doing things, new practices won't be found. Of course they will and those new ways of doing things will improve our work tremendously.)

But, for now, let's focus on what we do know.

Some things work. 

Some things do not.

Let's do what works.

School teachers and administrators have the What Works Clearinghouse. This website states its purpose is to provide "educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions."

Doctors and patients have Choosing Wisely - a site dedicated to promoting "conversations between clinicians and patients by helping patients choose care that is supported by the evidence, not duplicative of other tests or procedures already received, free from harm, and truly necessary."

If we know what to do and what not to do why do we choose poorly? Daniel Niven, a physician who studied why doctors did not abandon practices that were not effective, reported in a New York Times article that:

Even if the new contradictory science is accepted, providers often struggle applying this information in their daily clinical practice.

There are reasons for why those of us who are supposed to now better do not change.
  1. We work in systems that do not adapt well to change. 
  2. We are stubborn.
  3. We don't keep up with the science in our field.
  4. We trust our gut more than the evidence.
My wish is that those of us in schools, those of us charged with making sure that our students learn, must be willing to use best practice, look at the evidence, and change when we need to and stay the course when it is appropriate.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Trust is earned

I walk into a classroom and see a nineteen first grade students. They are, even at this young age, all shapes and sizes and colors. Tall. Short. Stout. Slim. Brown. Black. White.

It often takes my breath away.

What these first grade students don't know but I do is that some are rich, some are poor. Some have parents with advanced college degrees, some have parents who have only a high school diploma. Some students live in a half-million dollar house, some live in a trailer park.

And yet here these nineteen students sit, listening to their teacher and to each other. Each with a unique set of experiences, each adding to the rich tapestry of this first grade classroom.

These nineteen students sit in this classroom because their parents trust us. Parents trust us to see the uniqueness in their child. Parents trust us to look beyond the color of their child's skin, the accent of their language, the clothes that their child is wearing to see who and what their child is and who and what their child can become.
Atul Gawande recently gave the commencement address at U.C.L.A. Medical School and he said,

. . . trust is earned because of your values, your commitment to serving all as equals, and your openness to people’s humanity. 

A continuing, abiding, deeply-held value of those who work in public schools is that our schools should provide a place - a meaningful place - for everyone. We sometimes fail and stumble, but our core value is that public schools should provide a high quality experience for every student.

We begin to lose the trust of our parents when our parents begin to believe that we are sorting and separating our students. When parents see and believe that we, public school educators, are seeing some students as worthy of including and some students as less than that.

I believe in public education. But public education means that I have a moral obligation to provide a high quality, engaging experience for any student who walks through the door. I must believe that.

Even though my students do not come to me with the same experiences, the same resources, the same foundation, I must see in every student possibility, promise, potential.

Public schools are for all students.

That is the core principle of public education. Anyone who comes to the door of a public school is welcomed. 

And not just welcomed, but invited in with the promise that those inside will care for, challenge, comfort, protect, encourage, motivate, love, honor, and educate them.

We have not always lived up to that core principle. There are far too many instances where some students are valued less than others. Students with disabilities. Students of color. Students who look, sound, dress differently have historically been denied some of the benefits of a free and appropriate public education.

But the goal remains the same. Our public schools do not turn anyone away. If you show up at our door, the promise is that we will educate you.

Rich students and poor students.

Students from two parent families. Students with only a mother. Students with only a father. Students living with grandparents. Students living with aunts and uncles.

White students. Black students. Brown students. Students who speak English and students who don't.

Straight students. Gay students. Students who struggle with their identity.

In my district we have over 55 different languages from around the world spoken in the homes of my students. We don't have an ethnic majority - no race/ethnicity is over 50% of the student population.

We have students living in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country and students who qualify for free and reduced lunches.

My district reflects the changing demographics of the United States. My district reflects the promise of public education, of public schools.

We earn the trust of our students, our parents, and our community when we live our values - that education is for everyone who walks through the door.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

We are in this together: It's not us vs. them

Easy answers are easy to find.

An opinion piece recently was posted on the CNN website. It heralded the Supreme Court's recent decision regarding union dues. I am not here to discuss the merits of that decision.

What I would like to discuss is what was written in the first paragraph of the editorial when it states that with this decision the US Supreme Court provided an opportunity to overcome "two of the biggest obstacles to transforming education in America: the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers."

That's an easy answer. But, in my opinion, it's not true.

I am not here to defend teachers' unions. But suggesting that they are two of the biggest obstacles to transforming education is not right.

The author makes no mention of things like:

poverty, racial discrimination, depression among children and teens, parental involvement, second languages, community support, funding, preschool education, the availability of public libraries, hunger, the impact of social media, an over reliance on testing,

In my opinion these are bigger obstacles to transforming education.

The teachers I work with everyday in my school district search for ways to make a difference. This year a team of teachers at our high school teamed up to support students who struggled and over 80% of those students earned credit they would not have earned without that intervention, credit towards graduation. We have 2nd grade teachers who have started a garden club to help 2nd grade students learn a variety of valuable lessons - both inside and outside of the curriculum. We have teachers who pay for students' lunches. We have teachers who make sure that every student hears his or her name every single day.

The vast majority of these teachers are union members. Their union supports them. That is not to say that they do these things because they are union members but being a union member is important to them.

Unions have professionalized education. Better wages. Better working conditions. Protections for teachers from people like me - administrators who are sometimes arbitrary and capricious and expect outcomes that cannot be achieved without fundamental changes in society. Unions have helped to identify what works in classrooms and with students, have raised relevant questions about how what goes on outside of classroom and school affects what goes on inside the classroom and school, and have, overall, exerted a more positive than negative impact over the course of their long history. 

I agree that unions have at times strayed from a laser-like focus on the issues that are relevant to classrooms, teachers, and improving schools.

Perhaps the point being made in this opinion piece was that teachers should have a choice as to whether they should belong to the union. If so make that the headline.

Suggesting that educational reform has been stymied by unions is to ignore the fact that teachers and their union leadership have fought for our students and fought to improve our schools for many years in large and small ways.

Are they always right? No.

Do they make mistakes? Yes.

Can they do better? Absolutely.

But are they part of the answer to improving education in my state and my district? I believe that they have been in the past and can and will be in the future.

Do we need to improve education in the United States? Absolutely! But we will never get to that conversation if we continually make the conversation about other things.

When we demonize institutions and people, when we artificially create us vs. them relationships, when we say if we could just change this one thing and everything will be OK, we prevent real dialogue and collaboration on really important issues. I would hope that we could move past attacks that seek to divide us and find ways to work with each other so that our students will ultimately benefit.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Can breaking and filling hearts teach lessons?

A lot can happen in two years.

Two years ago as I left Stoney Creek High School, our Novi High School girls' soccer team was heartbroken. Defeated in a shootout in the state soccer semifinals. 

Two weeks ago as I left Williamston High School our Novi High School girls' soccer team was joyful. Victorious in a 1-0 Division One championship game! 
This picture shows the joy and heartbreak. One team celebrates a championship. One team suffers in defeat.

From time to time we debate the value of high school sports. Clearly at times there is an over-emphasis on winning. There are many examples of the adults who are in charge of high school athletics acting irresponsibly. There clearly is an actual financial cost to high school athletics.

But I believe in high school athletics. I've seen teams lose and I've seen teams win. But the value is not in the outcome. The value is in the process.

High school athletics teaches lessons that cannot be learned in a classroom. In the afterglow of the championship or in the crushing sadness of defeat the lessons may not be readily apparent. But both teams will at some point begin to recognize that success is difficult to achieve and not guaranteed.

This game came at the end of a long season for both teams. Each team had worked hard to get to this point. They had suffered through bad-weather games, difficult-field-condition games, very-good-opponent games. Through it all they had managed to find ways to win. And now they would play for a championship.

One team won. One team lost.

But valuable lessons were learned. Lessons about effort, commitment, teamwork, collaboration, sacrifice, and hard work are worth learning. These often are lessons that are not learned from a book. These are lessons that are learned from living life.

And often the lessons are learned in ways that can break or fill a heart.

Not every student participates in high school athletics. Participation in our high school marching band or in our robotics team or our quiz bowl team or our DECA and HOSA student organizations also help teach these lessons. Novi, like school districts all over Michigan and all over the United States, invest in comprehensive school athletic and extra-curricular programs because the investment helps our students learn important lessons.

Lessons that at times can break or fill a heart.