Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The importance of today for tomorrow

If you are looking for a book to read may I suggest this one:
Technically, book critics and reviewers call it a "middle-grade novel," meant, I suppose for students in grades 4 - 8. Perhaps, but for me, it had a great message.

From 1983-1986, I spent three years as a social worker for the Texas Department of Human Services trying to put families back together. I worked with children who had been abandoned, ignored, beaten, shuffled from home to home, and forgotten. I worked with children whose parents either couldn't or wouldn't feed them, who burned them with cigarettes, who left them alone all night, or who were willing to use them to get drugs. The children who came to me did not come because life was good. They came because life was less than it should be for a three- or five- or eleven- or thirteen-year-old.

I was supposed to help these children. Yet, in most cases, these children helped me.


They taught me the power of knowing that you belong, that you matter, that someone cares for you.

These children - ignored, hurt, forgotten - wanted to belong.

As a social worker, I saw how easily parents and relatives would give up on a child. I saw how adults would take care of themselves instead of taking the time to listen, to care, to help a child - their child.

Yet, most of these children still believed that there were adults who would care for them, who would help them, who would love them.

In our public schools, it is critically important that we create classrooms that care for kids. In our public schools, it is critically important that teachers and principals and bus drivers and cooks understand that the students who come to school every day need to find in our classrooms, on our buses, in our lunch rooms, on the playground people who care for them.

I understand that we have schools so that our children will learn the lessons that will prepare them for the rest of their lives. But our children are living lives right now. To ensure that they will be ready for the rest of their lives the children who come to our schools every day need to know that there are people who care about them, who will create positive spaces for them, who will make them feel like they belong right now.

Our children will never be ready for tomorrow unless they have adults who care for them today.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Because we can, does it mean we should?

First, let me say that I believe that schools should be held accountable. Those of us who teach and those of us who lead schools need to be able to demonstrate that we make an impact, that the hours' spent in our classrooms really do matter.

This is important. For ourselves. For our parents. But most importantly for our students.

However, can we take this too far? Can we know when we have crossed the line and made accountability more important than it should be?

I think I know the answer to that question. Last week, I think I saw good teachers in my district step over the line. They were just doing what I told them to do. They were not being mean or evil. They were following my direction. Good intentions gone wrong. Perhaps.

Last week I watched kindergarten children take a standardized, online assessment. Our district does this for all students in grades K-10. We assess in the fall and in the spring. We do it for the noblest of reasons. We want to establish a baseline so that we can measure growth over the course of the school year.

But just because we can assess kindergarten students using an online assessment in the first month of school, should we?

The first month of school is important - especially for kindergarten students. During the first month, routines are established, culture is created, attitudes are formed. Should we take the time that is required to give the online assessment or invest that time in continuing to create a positive classroom culture?

I have been on the side of assessing our kindergarten students twice a year for some time now. For the past five years, we have assessed kindergarten students in the fall and in the spring. I have advocated that this is important. I have championed the idea that the data we receive from this assessment helps us focus our instruction. I believe that this data makes a difference.

But, what if I have been wrong?

Last week I was in a building and watched as kindergarten students took the exam. For the most part, it appeared to be going well. Many students have handled laptops or ipads before. The online assessment was, for them, not stressful or difficult.

But there was one young student for whom it was not going well. The assessment was too long, the work was not meaningful, the experience was, obviously, frustrating.

And, it made me stop and think?

Perhaps, assessing kindergarten students in the first month of school with an online assessment is not good practice. Perhaps, instead of taking this time, I should instead trust that teachers will gather the information that they need to create meaningful literacy lessons in more authentic classroom literacy activities.

Instead of using September to communicate to kindergarten students that testing and assessment will be part of their school experience, perhaps I should instead encourage teachers to read with students, talk with students, write with students. Perhaps I should encourage meaningful, authentic classroom literacy activities that will engender a love of reading and a love of writing in my kindergarten students.

The online, standardized assessment could probably wait until spring. Kindergarten students would be older, they would have used classroom technology more frequently, and their experience in the classroom over the course of the year would have prepared them to take the online assessment more successfully.

I don't know the right answer.

What I do know is that just because we can doesn't necessarily mean that we should. Especially when it comes to kindergarten student assessment.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

What kind of teacher do I want?

Students return to the Novi Community School District next week. In some ways that is when school officially begins.  Unofficially, the school year started this week when Novi teachers engaged in two days of professional development, spent another day working in their classrooms, and spent a fourth day in staff meetings and at our district welcome back.

Even more unofficially, as I've driven around the district for the past several weeks, it is clear that school started weeks ago. Teachers have been coming to their schools throughout the month of August eager to set up their classrooms, move desks and chairs, hang bulletin board material, and create new learning spaces. They did not come alone. Teachers brought their children, their spouses, their significant others, their parents - anyone who could lend a hand.

As Novi prepares for the upcoming school year it is appropriate to ask what kind of teachers do we want for our children?

My children are grown now, but when they were young clearly and obviously I wanted teachers who would help my children learn. I wanted educated, informed, skilled teachers who could present information, encourage my children to discover ideas, and help my children learn what they needed to know to effectively function in our global society.

I wanted my children to grow into thinkers and inventors and entrepreneurs. I wanted my children to be doctors and business leaders and professionals. I wanted my children to be voters and involved community members.

What kind of teacher did I want for my children?

I wanted teachers who could help my children learn.

But is that all?

It was not.

This summer I read a book - Ms. Bixby's Last Day.

It was a wonderful experience. 
In the book Miss Bixby says to Christopher: 
We all have moments when we think nobody really sees us. When we feel like we have to act out or be somebody else just to get noticed. But somebody notices, Topher. Somebody sees. Somebody out there probably thinks you’re the greatest thing in the whole world. Don’t ever think you’re not good enough.

That's who I wanted in a teacher for my child. I wanted someone who would see the possibility, the potential, the hope that I saw when I looked at my child.

In some ways having a teacher who can see my child is as important, if not more important, than having a teacher who is the smartest teacher in the world.

My child and I could find information. What my child needed in this world was advocates and cheerleaders and adults who were willing to challenge and encourage and motivate and push my child to be the person they could become.

Don't get me wrong. I wanted my child's teachers to know their subject and be able to teach it well. I wanted teachers who had a passion for biology and chemistry and writing and reading and math and health and technology.

But I also wanted teachers for my children who were willing to look and really see my child.

As a parent I could not do it alone.

I needed teachers to help.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

On your worst day, you can be someone’s best hope

In just under two weeks, on August 29 to be precise, teachers in my school district will officially begin the new school year. Most have been busy for weeks thinking and planning and preparing for the upcoming year. Many have already been to their classrooms, busily fussing to prepare their rooms for the new school year.

My teachers will be ready for the "normal" changes that come with the start of any new school year - new curriculum, new resources, new technology, new ideas. If I know the teachers in my district, they will be ready for school - prepared, focused, goal-directed. Just this week many have begun to participate in district provided professional development to get ready for the new school year. This is on top of what they have already done this summer.
 And that brings me comfort. I know that the students in my district will be well served.

But, truthfully, I also want my teachers to come prepared to care for the students who come into their classrooms. Students need to know that there is an adult who is not their Mom or Dad or favorite Aunt or Grandmother who cares deeply for them, who wants them to succeed.

Students need classrooms that provide both challenge and care. 

In the past decade schools and society have focused on the challenge of school. We, hilariously and disquietingly, pretend that we can identify if a kindergarten student is making progress on being college and career ready. We have tested and assessed and benchmarked ourselves and our students - sometimes to the point of frustration, sometimes to the point of boredom, often to the point of anxiety. We have railed against wasted time in school. Some schools have reduced or eliminated recess and gym and music and art in an effort to ensure that our students will be "globally competitive."

The world today is different than the world I grew up in. No longer are students competing just with the person down the street. Now they compete with students from around the world. No longer can high school graduates easily transition into well-paying careers. No longer will employees work their lifetime for one employer who will protect and provide for them.

So we need schools that challenge our students, that make them think, that help them use knowledge in meaningfully and purposeful ways, that encourage them to hypothesize and create, that help them find ways to network and connect.

But we have, at times, forgotten that schools must also care for our students.

Our students need adults who take time to listen, who look students in their eyes to make sure that they are alright, who create opportunities for students to be heard.

Our students need adults who help students develop skills in empathy and compassion, who light fires in students to be kind, who help students learn to navigate conflict.

Classrooms need to be places where students feel safe, where they can ask questions, where they can fail and find someone encouraging them to get back up again.

Classrooms need rigor and kindness.

Teachers and administrators, custodians and bus drivers, food service workers and secretaries, preschool teachers and parapros can have a tremendously positive impact on students if we remember that part of our responsibility is to be kind, to create safe spaces, to care for the students that we teach, feed, and care for. 

Too often we judge a school by a test score. It is important to remember that schools are more than a test score.

Students need to know that staff members care. Because, at times we forget, even on a staff member's worst day, they at times are a student's best hope.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Killing a Profession - Part Two

I visit many classrooms. I see teachers; committed, engaging, serious, funny, caring, compassionate, forceful, smart, brave, thoughtful teachers.
And yet, I fear, the profession of teaching is dying.

This isn't the first time that these thoughts have crept into my mind. As it was then, it is true today. In my opinion, there are those who oppose public education and want to kill the profession. 

How do you kill a profession?

Disrespect: Anyone can teach!

Teachers work hard to become certified. Throughout Michigan, we have outstanding colleges and universities that help students interested in becoming public school teachers learn the craft of teaching. Michigan State University, one of the leading Colleges of Education in the United States - consistently ranked at or near the top in both elementary and secondary education - requires a bachelor's degree plus an additional full year unpaid internship.

Five years to learn your content and to learn how to teach. 

Yet the Michigan legislature passed and Governor Snyder signed legislation that allows noncertificated and nonendorsed people to teach in the Detroit Public Schools. The legislation specifically states the following:

Allow the community district to engage a full-time or part-time noncertificated, nonendorsed teacher if the appropriate official in the district determines that, due to the individual's combination of education and experience, it would be appropriate and in the best interests of the pupils of the community district; and provide that if the individual completed three years of successful classroom teaching, that experience would have to be used and student teaching would be waived for the purpose of receiving a provisional teaching certificate.

By passing this law the legislature, whether it was intentional or not, communicates to every teacher in the state of Michigan that their degree, their certification, their work accounts for nothing. It communicates "anyone can do your job."

Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, a well-known Finnish educational expert, calls this "de-professionalism." This idea promotes the idea that anyone can teach.

Some would argue that this bill does not communicate that at all. They would argue that what this bill allows is a well-qualified economist to come in and teach economics. I would disagree!

The trouble with that line of reasoning is that it presumes that the economics degree means something but an education degree does not. That line of reasoning suggests that an economics degree confers that you know economics but an education degree does not confer anything.

Secondly just because a person knows economics does not mean that they know how to teach high school or middle school or elementary age students. Does an economist know how to engage students, challenge students, help students who struggle with English as their primary language? Does an economist know how background and previous knowledge impacts a student's ability to learn new knowledge or how to overcome incorrect prior knowledge that filters how new information is attended to and interpreted?

Let's assume the economist is a college professor. Surely a college economics professor can teach high school students economics? After all what difference is there between a 19 year old college student and a 15 year old high school sophomore?

How you answer that question reveals whether or not you should be teaching in public schools!

This new legislation in Michigan disrespects those who have demonstrated a commitment to our children and who have studied so that they can teach our children well.

How do you kill a profession? Disrespect the profession.

Demonize: Public schools are too expensive

"Private schools could save Michigan $750 million a year" blared the headline. Instead of paying for public schools let's just send students to private schools which can educate students for far less money. This story promotes the idea that public schools are too expensive and that you could provide the same level of education in a private school.

It is true that the tuition for a private school, while it varies widely, is often less than the per-pupil cost that the state provides public schools.  (As a cautionary note on the true difference in cost this article states: "most private schools need funds beyond tuition to run. Survey respondents reported that the total cost to educate one student is nearly 25 percent greater than the rate charged to families, on average.")

How can private schools be less expensive to operate?

  • Private schools rely on part-time teachers in many instances.
  • Private schools often pay their teachers significantly less than public school teachers make.
  • Private schools often do not provide special education services.
  • Private schools often have shorter school years - thus costs are less.
By promoting the idea that public schools are too expensive, public schools are seen as wasteful and reckless.

How do you kill a profession? Demonize the profession.

Demoralize: Reduce hours of work into one number 

The teachers that I know, the teachers that work in my district, are committed, caring, creative, compassionate, intelligent, focused people. They know what they are doing. They work hard for their students. They take it personally when students struggle and they lose sleep when students don't appear to be learning.  They take great pride in creating meaningful and engaging lessons.

Yet, their whole value is captured in a single test score (in Michigan it is the M-STEP state assessment) revealed in the paper on a single day.

The Michigan state legislature has passed legislation that requires 40% of a teacher's evaluation to be tied to student growth - a single test score.

The nuances of learning, the ups and downs, the give and take, the hard work of teaching  - all of it reduced to one single measure.

In my district we will work to create a more comprehensive and holistic method for determining teacher effectiveness. I have great confidence that we will create a meaningful and significant counter measure that will more accurately identify the impact of a teacher in the classroom and of the work a teacher engages in with their students.

But will it matter? It is hard to tell.

How do you kill a profession? Demoralize those who willing choose the work.

I believe in public education.  

I want public schools to work. But sometimes I worry that there are more people who want to kill the profession!

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.