Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What will we learn?

Yesterday - April 11 - Michigan's high school testing program began. High school juniors arrived at school, greeted by smiling staff,  eager to communicate that today will be OK. It appears that our Novi High School students were taking the day in stride.
In a few weeks students will receive results. In a few months schools will be judged based on the results of this assessment.

In the end, what will we learn?

It is important that we have a way to determine if our schools are doing their job. There is a reasonable assumption that our students will learn how to read, write, do math, understand science, and know about our place in the world.

Over the years we have decided that state assessments or nationally standardized assessments give us a good sense of whether or not our students have developed those skills. There is some debate about whether or not that perspective is justified, given how test results often break down along class, socioeconomic, or racial lines.   

In addition, others have argued rather passionately that other skills are important. Skills in collaboration, adaptability, imagination, and initiative, for example. Those skills are much harder to assess via a paper and pencil test.

So we are left with the question of what will we learn from our state assessments?

We will learn that some students do very well, most do well, and some need improvement.

These are things that, quite honestly, we knew before we gave the assessment. The results of this high school assessment will not be known for months, will have little influence in the classroom, and will not unduly shape our instructional practice.

What does influence our instructional practice? What teachers see every day in the classroom. Engaged, informed, committed teachers know how to connect with students, engage students in meaningful work, and pull and push students toward competence and then excellence.

I trust what my teachers tell me about their students more than what the state assessment tells me about the students in my district. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

What are we?

Duck or bunny?

Or both?

Can you see both a duck and a bunny?

This optical illusion has me thinking about schools.

Should schools individualize? Or is teacher-led instruction the most effective? Or is it a combination of individualization and teacher-led activity during each school day?

Should schools teach affective or non-academics skills? Skills in leadership, collaboration, communication? Or should schools just focus on academic subjects?

Should schools embrace technology? What would "embracing technology" look like? A computer in a student's hand every minute of every day? Or is technology a tool and schools should ensure access when needed? If technology is to be used when needed, how does a school help students learn to discern when technology is an appropriate tool?

Should schools do away with grade levels and age-based instruction? Or do grade levels and age-based instruction have a place? And if they do what is that place?

Should schools sort and rank students with grades? Or should schools do away with grades and focus on ensuring students can meet certain standards? Or are standards too restrictive and schools should instead focus on competencies that every student should master?

There are plenty of questions about schools. And almost everyone has an opinion. Where one person sees that schools should do "X", another person sees that schools should do "Y" and still another person sees that schools should do "Z."

Schools cannot do everything.

Schools cannot be everything.

While I do not know the perfect answer to what schools should be, I do know that schools should be important in helping our students learn to think.

Alvin Toffler once said:
The question is how do we help our students develop the skills needed to be successful in the complex world that we now find ourselves trying to navigate.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The high cost of not changing

There is evidence that doctors prescribe and patients demand practices and procedures that do little good and may even do harm. An article from February 22, 2017, in The Atlantic states rather ominously:

it is distressingly ordinary for patients to get treatments that research has shown are ineffective or even dangerous.

And wait there's more! The article goes on to say:

. . . medicine is quick to adopt practices based on shaky evidence but slow to drop them once they’ve been blown up by solid proof.

Oh my!

How does this relate to schools and classrooms and students and teachers - things that I care deeply about?

There are many threads to this story.

Learning is a complex. Learning is difficult. Helping someone learn to read or understand linear equations or explain supply and demand or describe how temperature, pressure, activation energy, and concentration affect the rate of a chemical reaction is not easy. To do this successfully requires not only a person who understands the subject but also understands how six- and nine- and thirteen- and seventeen-year-olds think and reason and understand.

It is hard work!

And the teachers I see every day willingly engage in the tasks that are required to understand their subject and their students. They engage in this work because they want to, because they know it is important, because it makes a difference.

I believe that doctors know their work is important. I believe that doctors engage in their work because they know it makes a difference. But, as the article in The Atlantic makes clear, some doctors

. . . continue to deliver these treatments because it’s profitable—or even because they’re popular and patients demand them.

Teachers don't have a profit margin that they worry about. Teachers don't resist change because changing would affect their bottom line.

However, teachers can and do face pressure not to change because their current practice is popular. Sometimes current instructional strategies are fun. But as teachers evaluate their current practice they may identify more effective strategies. Leaving behind a cherished practice is hard. But teachers do it all the time.

Engaging students today requires incredible insight. Making learning relevant requires teachers who understand that what worked yesterday may not work today. Today's students are different from yesterday's students. Engaging these students requires new strategies, new insights, new approaches.

I appreciate the willingness of the teachers that I know to continue to find instructional strategies that work.

Change is hard.But not changing is harder!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Take time to read - aloud!

I visited Novi High School today. I walked into a Spanish III class to listen. When there was a break in the action, two students called me to the back of the room.

They asked, quite earnestly, "Have you read this?"

They were very excited about it. They explained it briefly. They told me the media center had copies. So I promptly went to the media center and checked out a copy.

When high school students give me book recommendations, I go grab the book.

Today is World Read Aloud Day 2017! The organizers say it is a day to "celebrate literacy and the pure joy and power of reading aloud."

When my children were small we tried to read aloud every single day. It provided a time for us to connect. It gave us things to talk about. It gave us things to anticipate.

Find books to read with your children. You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The heroism of everyday teachers

Teachers - those who work with students every day, who develop relationships, who care deeply for their students - take the long view. The long view is not necessarily dramatic or adrenaline-filled or prone to immediate results.

But it is effective.

Atul Gawande in The New Yorker discusses the power of incremental medical care and the tendency in society to avoid addressing problems:

until they are well upon us and unavoidable, and we don’t trust solutions that promise benefits only down the road.

Teachers are the masters of incremental care. Teachers recognize that students did not fall into their situations overnight and that students will not be rescued from low performance or low achievement overnight. It is through constant care and support, establishing a positive relationship, finding ways to connect and encourage that change will come.

Teachers recognize that it takes time to make a difference.

Paul Tough, in his book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, identifies the crucial impact this long view makes. Tough states:

When kids feel a sense of belonging at school, when they receive the right kind of messages from an adult who believes they can succeed and who is attending to them with some degree of compassion and respect, they are then more likely to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small-scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student's school day.

The long view. Building relationships, paying attention to each child, finding ways to connect. It is not dramatic, it is not the overnight transformation; but it is effective.

I understand the need for schools to demonstrate that they are making an impact. I understand the need for schools to improve a student's life. I understand that we need to hold schools accountable for making progress.

But it is through building relationships with students that teachers know and understand how to make an impact. Assuming that change will come quickly misses the point of teaching. Teaching is a series of incremental acts that work together to have a tremendously powerful influence.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Read books: It's important

How important is it that we take the time to read books?

It's a good question. In the times that we find ourselves, we often find excuses not to read books. We tell ourselves that there is just too much information out there for us to take the time needed to read a book. We have Twitter and Facebook. We watch TV. We scan headlines on our phones. We are sent links to articles from across the internet.

It is probably true that we have easy access to more information than probably at any time in history.

In a world like this then where does reading a book fit in?

Recently, President Obama, in an interview, eloquently stated that books helped him through his:

sometimes lonely boyhood, when “these worlds that were portable” provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.  

Books, President Obama, said have been a sustaining source of:

ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.

It is easy to get so busy that I believe, incorrectly, that I do not have time to read. From early starts to late meetings, a day can slip by rather quickly. Days become weeks and weeks become months and then, before I intended, I have failed to make time to read.

I have become more intentional about reading books. I snatch minutes before I go to sleep. I read while I wait.

I read because it is important.

Reading books gives me perspective and ideas. Reading books connects me to people who may be different than I am. Reading books helps me slow down and think.

Here are books that I have read recently. These titles are good for students in grades 4-7. Each was good in its own way. I'd start with "Wish."

For those wanting to think about our work with students, try these. I read each of these last fall. I'd start with "Teach Your Children Well."

Read. Read books. Read whenever you get a chance.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

When the right answer feels and looks like the wrong one

It was 4:30 AM. I was on the phone with Superintendents from around the county talking about our favorite winter subject - snow. At 4:30 AM the snow had just started. The weatherman on the call with us indicated that we would receive only 3 - 4 inches. Later in the morning the snow would turn to rain with a high temperature of in the upper 30's.

So we all agreed - no snow day.

I hung up the phone, got ready for work, and started in.

My commute lasted twice as long as normal. It was slow, slow, slow! The slower my commute became the more I worried that perhaps I had not made the right call.

My Novi students didn't think I made the right call. Novi students took to Twitter and let me have it:

Clearly getting to school was difficult this morning. Teachers were late. Buses were late. Students were late.

It was messy.

But was having school today the wrong call?

It depends.

When the call had to be made it was the right call. There was little snow on the ground at 4:30 AM. You can't plow snow if there is no snow to plow. The call has to be made early so that staff and parents can be notified.

But 3 - 4 inches of snow coming when staff and students and parents and buses were competing with people commuting to work made teachers late to school, made buses run up to 30 minutes late, and made high school student drivers nervous and frustrated.

I have learned that there is no perfect answer on a snowy day in Michigan. I try to err on the side of student and staff safety. But there does come a time when I have to decide whether it is safe or not. Today I decided that it was safe. I know that there are people who would argue that I was a fool. 

Today I made what I thought was the right call. Even though it took a long time and even though people were upset and even though it tested our nerves and our patience, in the end, I think this was the right decision.

But, to be truthful, at times, it felt like the wrong call.