Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Reflections on Thanksgiving

My world looks like this:
Not this:
Clearly, I have much for which to be thankful.

As Thanksgiving arrives I cannot not be thankful. My world brings me joy. But I also believe that I have a responsibility to be aware of and to be part of the larger world that I live in. I cannot ignore the ugly and challenging parts of the world even though my particular part of the world is stable, happy, beautiful.

How can I be thankful yet know that many in the world suffer?

I believe I have twin responsibilities. I can appreciate my world. The beauty. The friends. The conveniences. The opportunities.

But I must also find ways to help. Volunteer. Give. Learn. Make a difference.

This Thanksgiving I am thankful for the complicated and tangled world that I find myself trying to navigate through, hoping that I can find ways to make the world better for those close to me and those whom I do not know.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Selfless acts

For me, it's hard to know why people do what they do. Some are motivated by fear. Some people are angry. Some people lash out because they feel threatened. Some people want to put others down so they can feel important. Some people want to save the world and they believe they are the only ones who can do it.

But then there are the people who are selfless - who act, it seems, purely for others.

These are the people that I really don't understand!

I was with some of those people for the past four days. Twenty-seven Novi Community School District staff plus the City of Novi Chief of Police served as chaperones for 324 Novi Middle School 8th graders on the annual trip to Washington DC. (I apologize in advance that I don't have pictures of all of the chaperones.)





As I sat on a bus surrounded by 8th-grade students I could look around and see three other adult chaperones. There were six other buses in exactly the same position - almost fifty students, four adult chaperones. Each chaperone was responsible for a group of twelve students.

Twelve 8th grade students. Twelve students who exhibit the highs and lows of being in 8th grade. These students were awkward at times - physically, emotionally, intellectually. These students were compassionate at times - to each other, to the chaperones, to our guide and driver. These students were curious at times - about the city, about each other, about history.

Twelve 8th grade students. Sometimes these students would not be quiet - especially at 3:00 AM when all you wanted to do was catch a few short minutes of sleep on the bus. Sometimes these students would express thankfulness with just the right words or the right action. Sometimes these students would be silly at the wrong moment and follow that up with a pitch-perfect sense of solemnity called for in that moment.

They are 8th graders!

And through it all, there was a group of chaperones who showed patience and concern and care. This group of chaperones held the reins tight when needed and let the students run when that was appropriate. This group of chaperones used moments to teach life lessons but never became "preachy."

These chaperones focus was on making sure that this group of 324 8th grade students had the time of their lives. The chaperones traveled all night with these 8th graders - down to Washington DC and back. This group of chaperones ate every meal for three full days with 8th graders. These chaperones woke up early so that they could be on time to wake up these 8th graders. This group of chaperones spent almost every waking hour for three straight days with 324 8th graders.

Why?

Because these chaperones care for these children who are not their own. These chaperones want the best for these students.

Why do people do what they do?

It is a mystery.

What I know is that I am grateful for adults in our school district and community who care for kids.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Bus 4: Full of Possibilities

Middle school was, for me, a long time ago. So long ago it was called junior high. I rode my bike to school with Les and Woods and Buddy and Tom.

What the future held we hadn't a clue. Our parents trusted that school would prepare us. Amazingly it did even though our present is so much different that we could have imagined.

Tonight I sit in the middle of 45 eighth grade students. We are on our way toWashington DC. 29 boys in front of me. 16 girls behind. I occupy the demilitarized zone so to speak. I am gatekeeper, peacemaker, guardian.

The parents of the 45 students on Bus 4 and the parents of the other 280 students in six other buses trust that our school will prepare these young children for their future. I believe that we will. Even though the future is hard to see clearly.

My parents and the parents of Les, Woods, Buddy, and Tom could not have foreseen the powerful forces that have shaped our world. Technology, social media, globalization, media, war, terrorism, diversity. The changes have been profound in ways large and small.

And tonight I both hope and plan that our schools will prepare the students on Bus 4 for the future that will transform into their present.

It's now past midnight. Surprisingly Bus 4 is quiet. In this relative calm I can sense the possibilities that lay ahead. Both for tomorrow and the years ahead.

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.

How?

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.