Friday, December 12, 2014

What brings you joy?

A young man - still in elementary school - looked up in the teacher's eyes and asked, "What brings you joy?"

A teacher recounted that story to me this week as she asked me, "What brings you joy?"

It is not a question that I ask myself very often. But as I thought about it, I understood that joy surrounds me.

I see joy - almost everyday.

In a variety of places.

With students who are doing a lot of different things.

I see joy in the faces of the students in my district. In the faces of the teachers in my district.
But the question is what brings me joy?
My wife, my boys, my walks with Kaya - my dog.
My family, my friends. 
Sunrises, sunsets, clear nights when I can sit by a fire.
I find joy in many places and with many people.  
When I enter a classroom and see students and their teacher deeply engaged in meaningful work - that brings me joy.
When a teacher bends down to listen deeply and intently to a child - that brings me joy.
When I hear students laugh, when I see students care, when I see students work hard to learn their lesson - that brings me joy.
Joy is something that surrounds me - and yet most days I don't think much about it. I will think about it more often.
A teacher asked me a question, "What brings you joy?"
So I ask you as well - what brings you joy?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Kids are not crops

The New York Times had an interesting article about the rising use of technology in farming. Two sentences in the article struck me:

There is an incentive to grow single crops to maximize the effectiveness of technology by growing them at the largest possible scale.

Technology encourages farmers to move too aggressively toward easy-to-grow and easy-to-sell crops that are more easily measured by instruments, rather than keeping some diversity in the fields.

In education we love our technology.

We also love our ability to standardized our testing routines so that we can measure student growth and achievement.

I am an accountability advocate. I want to be able to demonstrate that a student is learning. When a parent sends their child to one of the schools in my district, I want to be able to show that our schools make a difference.

But, if I am not careful, the focus on being able to demonstrate that our schools make a difference, that students are growing, will lead me, like farmers, to simplify the solutions.

Instead of creating a robust and diverse curriculum, it will be tempting to narrow the curriculum - to focus instead on easy to measure, easy to assess curriculum topics.

But kids are not crops.

Students need to struggle, to be curious, to be allowed to fail, to explore, to chase a passion.

But that is hard to measure.

Students need to be able to talk and write and explain their reasoning.

But that is hard to measure.

It is tempting to maximize the effectiveness of our schools by "growing single crops," teaching only what can be measured.

It is tempting to eliminate diversity and focus on conformity because that can be measured by the instruments that we have.

But kids are not crops.

My challenge is to create a school that has a diverse and rich curriculum, that allows for exploration and failure and the pursuit of passions AND one that can demonstrate to students, parents, community members, and legislators that something good and rich and productive is happening.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Finishing second

I stood in the interview room. On my right, the coach spoke to a group of reporters. 

Directly in front of me stood a circle of fifteen girls. Each one a Novi High School student. Each one a member of the Novi High School volleyball team.

Now the team stood, arms encircled one another. Heartbroken. Tears filled their eyes. 

Just minutes before these Novi High School volleyball players had lost in the 5th and deciding set of the Michigan High School Athletic Association state championship game. Down two sets to none, these girls won two sets in a row to force the fifth and deciding set.

Just a night before the girls had found themselves in the same situation. Down two sets to none, they faced the task of winning three straight sets if they wanted to advance. Amazingly, thrillingly they did.

Then less than twenty-four hours later, they faced the same situation. And it appeared they might pull it off one more time.

But they didn't.

And now, in front of me, I saw a team smiling, crying, holding on to each other.

They were not champions. Instead they finished second.

The point of sports is to win. In our society finishing second is frowned upon. Champions are celebrated. Those that finish second are forgotten.

But I am here to suggest that the point of high school sports is about more than winning.

Every team wants to win. Every coach wants to win. The sacrifice, the sweat, the time is all given in an effort to win. 

Winning is the point.

But, in high school, I would submit that the point of athletics is winning plus . . .

Plus helping our students build character. 

Plus developing tenacity, grit, and perseverance.

Plus building an understanding in our students of how to depend on teammates and how to be a teammate.

Plus creating in our students deeply passionate connections with others.

Plus learning how to support others with your presence, with your voice, with your talent.

Plus learning what it takes to grow, improve, and develop talent.

These young ladies wanted to win. They did everything they could to finish as champions. 

But, my guess is, these young ladies will remember the lessons that they learned that go beyond winning.

Even though they finished second.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Why high school students inspire me

On Thursday I walked into a Novi High School Biology classroom and watched as students and the teacher worked through a discussion about cell division. One of the students participating actively was a student I had seen the previous Tuesday evening working as part of her high school volleyball team as they won their match that sent them to the state semifinals.

I saw this student again last night as her team stormed back to win their state semifinal match. Today they play for the state championship.

High school students are amazing!

The boys cross country team at Novi High School was academic all-state with a combined team GPA of over 3.9.

On Thursday I walked into the TV production studio at Novi High School and watched as students directed, broadcast, and problem-solved their way through a live news broadcast. 

Just down the hall I had left a dance classroom where students practiced their  latest dance performance. Later that morning I saw one of the students who was in that dance class working her way through chemical notation in her chemistry class.

Upstairs students were working their way through primary source documents in AP US Hustory. 

Back down on the first floor I saw students putting together a lawnmower engine that they had recently taken apart. As I watched one of the students approached me and joked about how slick the roads were that morning. Smiling he wondered if we should close school.

High school students are so much more confident, skilled, and capable than I was in high school. 

We hear a lot about high school students - some not very complementary. I'm here to say that the high school students I see amaze me. 

I know high school students make some interesting and dubious choices at times. So do adults. 

What I see are wonderful students who need deeply committed adults in their lives to help them continue to become all they dream of becoming.

High school students - all students - truly are amazing!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

What I learned from Bus #2

By 7:00 AM tomorrow I will have spent approximately 84 straight hours with 8th graders from Novi Middle School.

Right now it's about 10:00 PM on Saturday evening. A long bus ride is all that stands between us and the end of our Washington DC field trip.

We came to Washington DC, we toured Washington DC, and we have left Washington DC.

In the 84 hours that I will have spent with our 8th graders, I learned, or at least remembered, several things.

One, 8th grade boys touch anything and everything. Walls. Railings. Each other. 

Two, the wonders of history can make an impression on 8th grade students who are bombarded with technology and entertainment and Instagram and text messages and Twitter. It may take awhile but the power of Arlington National Cemetery or the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial or the Lincoln Memorial can make 8th grade students think about their place in the world.

Three, 8th graders will spend foolishly. Five dollars for a lollipop as big as your fist - seriously!

Four, the world is as difficult for 8th graders to figure out as it is for adults. 8th graders question why there are so many graves at Arlington, why the Declaration of Independence was so revolutionary, why a President could be shot in Ford's Theater. 

Five, 8th graders sometimes don't pay close attention. One young man, sitting in Ford's Theater, having just listened to the National Park Service Ranger talk about how Lincoln was shot in that very place, looked up at his chaperone and asked, "Wasn't Lincoln shot in a theater?"

Six, there are adults who care a great deal about children who are not their own. Approximately 30 Novi teachers, our Assistant Principal, our Novi school nurse, and the Novi Chief of Police voluntarily chose to ride a bus from Michigan to Washington DC and back, eat with, walk with, and share with a group of 8th grade students.


In the hope that these young men and women would learn about the American spirit so that they can be part of the American dream.

It was a noble and generous gesture. One for which I am deeply grateful.

My final lesson remembered - the seventh lesson - has been that giving of yourself to others is never easy and not always rewarded. But it is always worth it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

To the Parents of Bus #2

I sit in the middle of Bus #2. In the middle of your sons and daughters.

It is late.

Novi Middle School is on the way to Washington DC. Tonight we travel so that tomorrow we can tour the sights and see the historical documents of our country.

The school and the school district promote the trip as being educationally relevant. It is. Eighth grade studies US History. There is a lot of US History in Washington DC.

Eventually, your sons and daughters will study Civics and some will even take an Advanced Placement class in Government and Politics.

At some point one or two of our students, perhaps your son or daughter, will decide to run for political office. They may look back on this trip to Washington DC as an inspiration. They may remember the Lincoln Memorial or the Capital Building or the King Memorial as particularly meaningful.

But for tonight, education is not the primary focus.

I have sat for three hours listening to your sons and daughters laugh and giggle, talk and whisper. They have leaned over seats and across aisles. 

There are cell phones and iPads, tablets of all shapes and sizes. 

At one point there was a student with a book right in front of me. And he was reading it. Wonderful!

We just stopped on the Ohio Turnpike. You should be glad you were not at that turnpike stop. Everyone who stepped off the bus stepped back on. One hurdle cleared.

I am not with your children every day of the school year. Instead I am a visitor, a frequent guest to the classrooms, the hallways, the lunch room at Novi Middle School.

I see your sons and daughters in places and in ways that as parents you do not. I hear them chatter. I see them run when they should walk. I see them talk when they should be quiet. I see them lean in close to share secrets. I see them open lockers that at times are remarkably organized and at other times amazingly cluttered.

I also see them think deeply, struggle to solve problems, find joy in learning. 

Tonight I have seen them navigate the bus. It is a remarkably delicate dance.

Eighth grade is a year of transition. For you as parents. For your sons and daughters as children.

Your children are beginning to recognize that there there is a life beyond school. They are beginning to recognize their passions, wonder about life beyond your house, beyond Novi.

Tonight is emblematic of their life.

They are scared and excited and hopeful.

You are scared and excited and hopeful.

But for tonight they are kids on a bus. So rest easy parents of the students on bus #2 - your sons and daughters will soon be asleep. Perhaps.

And hopefully so will I.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Are "educational reformers" legitimate?

Think back to the best teacher that you ever had.

How many teachers did you think of? I immediately remembered six.

Miss Harriger - 2nd grade Inez Elementary School - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Miss Hixenbaugh - 4th grade Inez Elementary School - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Mrs. Chapman - 5th grade Inez Elementary School - Albuquerque, New Mexico

(Evidently I had a really good experience at Inez Elementary School!)

Miss Getz - 9th grade Language Arts Monroe Junior High - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Miss Ely - 10th grade English Sandia High School Albuquerque, New Mexico
Coach Braig - Latin I and II Sandia High School Albuquerque, New Mexico

Great teachers - everyone of them.

Why did I believe that they were so good?

They respected me. I had a voice. The valued my opinions and ideas. They gave me freedom. I knew what to expect day to day. They treated everyone in the class fairly. They made me work hard. They challenged me to become better.

I thought of those teachers as I read Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. In his chapter on the limits of power Gladwell talks about the principle of legitimacy.

It turns out, according to Gladwell, that leading and moving and motivating and encouraging and managing people turns on this principle of legitimacy.

Students view good teachers as legitimate. Students respect the teachers because we believe in them. As a result, we follow those teachers. We follow them to places that we never thought we could go. We become better than who we thought we were.

Students also are very sensitive to teachers who are not legitimate. These are the teachers who cannot relate to students, do not believe in students, have poor classroom management skills, do not challenge students, and who do not move students forward.

I can think of some of those teachers as well.

As I read Gladwell's chapter I also thought about the educational reform battles we are waging. Why are the battles so fierce?

It is possible that the battles are so fierce because those of us in education do not view the "reformers" as legitimate.

The "reformers" don't give educators a voice.

The "reformers" keep changing the rules.

The "reformers" treat groups differently.

The "reformers" are not actually in schools working with students every day.

The "reformers" talk about the changes that need to take place but they have never actually demonstrated that they have the ability to make these changes.

As a result, those of us in education don't believe the reformers.

Do schools need to improve? Absolutely.

But does that mean teachers are terrible, administrators are incompetent, and public schools are a failure? Of course not.

But the rhetoric of the "reformers" castigates educators. Instead of trying to listen to our voice or inviting us to participate in the dialogue, the reformers push us away.

They know best - that is the message they send.

As a result, those of us who work with students and parents every day, those of us who understand the variety of needs within the students who come to our schools every day, those of us who have committed our lives to being with and beside students, don't believe the reformers.

I am not suggesting that the reformers do not value students and that they do not genuinely want schools to improve.

But the reformers by pointing fingers and claiming to have the answers undermine their legitimacy and go against Gladwell's points on the limits of power.

As Gladwell states, "when people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters - first and foremost - how they behave."