Wednesday, June 15, 2016

This heartache will stop hurting - eventually

As I was driving home from watching the Novi High School girls' soccer team play a Division One State Semi-final game, listening to songs on my phone, Jason Aldean's song "Heartache That Don't Stop Hurting" began playing.
It seemed appropriate.

As I left the stadium our Novi High School girls' soccer team was in various stages of heartache.

They had played a tremendous game, leading for most of the second half. However, as has happened time and time again in sports, our girls had not been able to put the Stoney Creek High School girls away. Stoney Creek scored a late goal and after two scoreless overtime periods, the Novi High School girls lost in a shoot out.

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.

One of the reasons I believe in high school athletics is because of what I saw last night. I saw our students with their hearts aching and with tears flowing. Their physical appearance expressed sadness.

These students will never forget that game. Years from now they will look back with regret, minds filled with "what-ifs" and "if we had just . . ."

But our students will also not forget that game because they will recognize - not today, not tomorrow, maybe not for awhile - that success is difficult to achieve. This game came at the end of a long season. They had worked hard. 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, reaching within one game of playing for a championship.

And yet - in the end, despite their effort and their commitment - their hearts were hurting.

The lessons that our Novi High School girls' soccer team is learning are lessons that every student in our school district needs to learn. Lessons about effort, commitment, teamwork, collaboration, sacrifice, and support are worth learning. These often are lessons that are not learned from a book. These are lessons that are learned from living life.

And high school athletics helps to teach these lessons.

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. In Novi we invest in comprehensive school athletic and extra-curricular programs because the investment helps our students learn important lessons that prepare them to be successful.

Even if the lessons break their hearts.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Waffles, Pop Tarts, and Starbursts: Navigating a new world

While I like to think of myself as young, there are times when I feel old. This, for example, makes me feel old.

And this . . .

When I was growing up I did not think that the world would care what my breakfast looked like, my feelings on new Pop Tart flavors, or that I liked to eat sweet things. I often shared these deep insights with my friends but I never considered that other people outside of my circle would care.

Evidently times have changed because my twenty-six year old son routinely publishes these kind of pictures on Instagram.

And he is not alone.

Look at Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter or Vine or the host of other social media sites that everyone - even old people like me - post to and access daily. Pictures like these and an infinite variety of other pictures and thoughts are found there - EVERY SINGLE DAY!

That is not to say that this is all social media is used for because social media presents multiple opportunities for people of all ages to find their voice, advocate for important issues, and learn from each other. Twitter, for example, has connected me to educators from around the nation and the world who bring me new and needed perspectives.  

While social media presents multiple opportunities for self-expression, helps people find their voice, encourages collaboration, and provides platforms for advocacy, even my twenty-six year old has come to realize that there is a power in social media that takes time to recognize and to harness.

One of his recent texts to me contained these words:

And it is not just teenagers who struggle to understand this new "responsibility and power." There are numerous examples of adults who have not quite figured out that words and pictures that are posted to Twitter or Instagram or Vine can have consequences.

And that is where the tension rests for us in positions of responsibility in schools.

How do we use social media tools and help students learn without over-reacting?

Social media tools create wonderful opportunities to connect. Social media provides students with an audience. Social media connects students with experts that they would never have had access to before. Social media creates engagement. Social media provides feedback.

But social media also allows students to share more than they should, to share in inappropriate ways, to share way too much.

So where should I draw the line?

Schools are supposed to be places where students can and should learn. But sometimes students act, quite honestly, stupidly. (They are not stupid - they just do stupid things.) Sometimes these acts are unintentional - they quite honestly had no idea that others people would be offended. At other times their actions were quite deliberate - they set out to offend or be provocative or to cross a line or, unfortunately, to threaten.

(To be clear this reflection is not about criminal acts. A threat, a picture purposefully posted to violate another person - these acts, and others, need to be punished both by the school and by the police.)

When my students post comments or pictures, when they share ideas and reflections that are offensive or vulgar or lewd - either with foresight or without - what should my response be?

Students need to learn. Those of us in schools need to teach and model and mentor. When lines are crossed what should be the consequence?

Finding the balance and navigating this new world can be difficult.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Undervaluing our students

Jimbo Fisher is the head football coach of the Florida State Seminoles.

Last season he earned $3.7 million dollars.

This is not a rant on the perverted senses of our American society that is willing to pay a football coach close to four million dollars a year to coach. No, this is a rant about how we undervalue providing support for students and overvalue providing support for athletes.

Sports Illustrated once wrote a column on Coach Fisher and said the following:

Fisher explained that since taking over (as head coach at Florida State), he had hired a nutritionist to monitor what players ate. He had contracted a mental-conditioning coach to change how players thought. He had inherited two strength-and-conditioning assistants, then hired six more and was on the verge of bringing on a seventh to ensure that players received more individual attention in the weight room. Fisher then asked boosters to dig deep because he needed more. He wanted better dorms for the players and an indoor practice facility. 

I am in the midst of planning my 2016-2017 school district budget. We received a $60 per student increase in per pupil funding. That is a .7% increase from this year.

In my district, I hire first grade teachers and third grade teachers and math and Spanish and Japanese and history teachers and expect them to attend to all of the variety of issues that a first or third or eighth or eleventh grade student brings to the classroom. I do not have the luxury of hiring specialists for every issue that students bring into the classroom.

If a student needs to learn to focus, I expect my teacher to help them do that.

If a student has to get organized, I expect my teacher to help them learn to do that.

If a student needs work on the basics, I expect my teacher to help them with that.

When a college football coaches has a need, they spend money to address it.

When teachers have needs, on the other hand, they get busy fixing the problem.

As the 2015-2016 school year barrels to a close I am once again reminded that teachers do amazing things because we continue to undervalue, under-appreciate, and under-fund our students.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The knuckleball and innovation in schools

RA Dickey is a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. He throws the knuckleball.

While a member of the New York Mets RA Dickey won the CY Young Award - emblematic of the best pitcher in baseball. Knuckleball pitchers don't win the Cy Young Award. Dickey was the first to do so.

When Dickey accepted his Cy Young Award he said:

We live in a culture now that's got a very progressive mentality, which is fantastic as far as the association of the knuckleball goes. And that's a compliment to the vision and the imagination of the writers who voted. They didn't see the knuckleball as a trick pitch. They didn't see it as some kind of illegitimate weapon that you can use that isn't worthy. They saw it as a legitimate weapon. 

So what does RA Dickey winning the Cy Young Award have to do with innovation in education?

Perhaps, and this is just a hunch on my part, we are turning a corner. Perhaps, we are beginning to see that it is the outcome that is most important and not the means.

RA Dickey won the CY Young Award because he won a lot of games. It didn't matter that he threw the knuckleball. It didn't matter that he was not a typical fastball, curve ball kind of pitcher. He won because he won.

Schools exist to help students learn. We should use any means available to us to help students learn.

In the past we have viewed learning as "legitimate" only if it was teacher directed. Teachers were rated as effective if they were the primary "talkers" in the classroom. Teachers were rated as effective if they commanded the attention of the students in the room.

But that is not how students learn anymore.

Students are more independent. Students have a voice.

Student have developed their voice by gaining access to information through the Internet, by connecting with people from around the world through gaming platforms, by sharing ideas through Twitter and Snapchat.

We can no longer say that students should not have a voice in our classrooms. We cannot say that the only legitimate learning that occurs is in the classroom between the hours of 8:00 and 4:00.

Learning occurs throughout the day, throughout the night, throughout the year.

The definition of legitimate learning has to expand. Students have access to too much information.

The question is how do schools capitalize on this and expand learning opportunities inside of our schools?

The baseball writers accept that the knuckleball is now a "legitimate" pitch.

Can we as educators accept that student learning is different now than it has been in the past? And if we can accept that, how does it change how we do business?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Do we expect more from technology and less from each other?

Sherry Turkle gave an interesting TED talk in 2012 about the rise of technology and the fall of human connectedness. It is worth 19 minutes of your time.

In the talk, Ms. Turkle states that technology provides "the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship."

Friendship is messy. It requires time. There is a give and take. Through friendship we will experience deep grief and profound joy. But these emotions demand an investment of ourselves in the lives of our friends.

Sometimes it is just easier to text our friend. That way we give the illusion that we want to share in their grief or joy without actually having to get messy and caught up in this complicated thing called life. Instead of investing we "dabble" in the conversation.

As I listened to this TED talk I thought about how some people tend to place their trust in technology to solve the problems of education. Give every kid a laptop. Let them learn at their own pace.

To me this provides the illusion of learning without the demands of thinking.

Learning is messy. Learning requires time. Learning requires the guidance of a great teacher who can moderate the give and take that is required to learn. 

Learning is more than knowing facts and figures. Learning is figuring out how to think, how to reason, how to understand how things fit together. That requires that we develop the capacity to reflect and understand another perspective and see how that there is more than one way to solve a problem.

Technology is a great tool. Technology provides access to information. Technology provides access to networks of people that previously had been unavailable. Technology creates wonderful opportunities for learning.

But technology does not guarantee that you will learn. Students need teachers to help moderate and navigate the complexities inherent in learning.

At times technology appears to be a better answer to learning that our standard and common classrooms. That happens when teachers do not take the time to create engaging, meaningful, and powerful classrooms environments that call for the best from students. At times teachers and students tacitly agree that they will not push each other. Teachers and students agree that they will coast.

But just because that happens does not mean that is the way it is supposed to be or the way that it should be. Great teachers create classrooms that push students to learn, engage them in meaningful and purposeful reflection, and demand thinking.

Great teachers care for their students in ways that technology cannot. Technology can be a tool. But technology can never replace the wonderfully engaging classrooms that passionate teachers create.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Distracting ourselves to death

A random tweet on a random Tuesday makes me think that we pay too much attention to "what" we are teaching and not enough attention to "why" we are teaching.

While content is clearly important, perhaps more important is why we want students to learn the content in the first place. Whether it is the Common Core, the Michigan Grade Level Content Standards, or the High School Content Standards, I would hope that we would agree that content for content's sake is relatively unimportant.

Google has content. People have context, nuance, understanding.

Google has content. People make sense.

What is clearly more important that making sure our students "know" the content is ensuring that our students have the ability to think, to listen, to reason, to communicate, to create.

Instead of arguing about "just" the content, I want us to make sure students know why they are learning.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Dear Novi Students: Meet my Uncle Gordon

Dear Novi Students,

You probably have never heard of, never been to, and don't know much about Vinita, Oklahoma.

Guy Fieri, celebrity chef, once visited Vinita to see Clanton's Cafe for his "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" TV show. So there's that!

I've been to Vinita many times. It was home to my Uncle Gordon and Aunt Lenora.

Uncle Gordon owned a gas station in Vinita. Full service! Whenever my family would visit, which was almost every summer when I was young, he would let me spend an afternoon pumping gas and washing the car windows of customers.

Uncle Gordon loved politics. I think he was a Democrat, although I never really knew one way or the other. He could get pretty worked up about either party. He'd bust out a "dad gum" or a "my oh my" or a "heck fire" whenever politics was the topic of conversation. I can still see him pacing back and forth as he talked with my Dad and my uncles about this or that thing the Democrats of the Republicans were doing.

Uncle Gordon cared deeply about how people governed and how taxes were spent. He cared deeply about how politicians treated people and how well government worked for people. And, as you know, sometimes politicians don't govern very well and waste tax dollars. Sometimes, politicians seem callous toward the needs of people and government doesn't work very well. At other times, our elected representatives do a wonderful job and make significant contributions that improve the life of the people that they govern.

Regardless of his perspective - good or bad, I never heard Uncle Gordon call someone that he disagreed with a "loser." He never called politicians names. He never made fun of his governor or his state senator or the President.

Uncle Gordon grew up in a state that has had a bit of a complicated history with race and diversity. Yet Uncle Gordon never argued that our government should isolate or watch or ostracize certain groups of citizens. 

Uncle Gordon had strong convictions. At times he believed he knew what was best. But if his Governor or his state senator or his US Congressman made a decision that he did not agree with, Uncle Gordon did not advocate rioting or violence.

Here in the Novi Schools, we (your principals, your teachers, the adults who work for the school district) work hard to help you learn lessons that will prepare you for life. We think a lot about how we teach and spend significant amounts of each day helping you learn math and history and how to write and how to read. It is critically important that you learn those lessons.

But, in our district, of approximately 6,500 students with over 55 languages spoken in the homes of our community, with a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups, with houses that range from modest to well appointed, and with over 1,000 students who are classified as English Language Learners, it is also important that we spend time talking about and providing examples of how to work with and talk with and be with each other.

If you have paid attention to this presidential election season, you might have seen examples of behavior and heard comments that I would view as unacceptable. Yelling and name-calling are common. The candidates appear more interested in speaking than listening. Insults have been hurled at each other and at groups of people.

This is not how I want us to act in our school district!

We can have disagreements. We can have different perspectives. We can take different sides on any variety of issues.

But in order for our democracy to work we need to learn to work with and for each other.

I am proud of you - the students in Novi. You have shown me through your actions that you have learned and are learning how to respect one another, how to work with people who do not look or sound like you, and how to listen and talk with each other.

Are we perfect? No!

Do we sometimes make mistakes? Yes!

But together we - students and adults - are trying to build the skills that we need to create a society that we can be proud of and live in.

You would have liked Uncle Gordon. He helped me learn how to listen and when to speak. He helped me learn to think about problems and how to solve them. My hope is that in addition to reading, math, history, and science, we can help you continue to learn those lessons as well.

Dr. Matthews