Friday, June 19, 2015

Will we close our eyes?

Yesterday in Charleston South Carolina, nine people who gathered in a church for a bible study were gunned down by a man who did not know them but who hated them because they were black.

I can't fathom hate like that.

Intellectually I know it exists.

Emotionally it is beyond what I can comprehend.

In Novi our work rests on two pillars. All of what we do - our work in curriculum, assessment, evaluation, instruction, and student growth is built on helping our students learn to write and to understand social justice.

Writing is an easy pillar to explain. If students can write, and write well, it means that they can think, that they can examine ideas, that they can reason, that they can communicate. Writing supports students as they learn math and science and social studies. Being a writer prepares students to enter into the conversations that they will have in the board room and the break room and the shop floor and the family room. Writing makes sense for a school district.

Social justice. This pillar is harder to explain to people. People push back against social justice. People suggest to me that this is not what the district needs to focus on. Social justice is too political they say. Social justice draws attention away from the important work that we must do in helping students learn the curriculum. Social justice is not a priority.

I disagree.

I don't care how smart a person is if that person cannot understand another person's point of view.

I don't care how smart a person is if that person is unwilling to reflect on the social and economic inequities that our country faces.

I don't care how smart a person is if that person does not want to hear another person's voice.

Smart is not the most important attribute we give our kids.

It is important - don't get me wrong.

And our district does a very good job of helping our students learn. Our district goals focus on our ability to move students forward, to prepare them intellectually for that next step in their life.

But "smart" is not the only thing that matters.

Compassion, understanding, the ability to see another person for who they are. The willingness to listen. The desire to work with, be with, live with, build with other people.

These attributes are just as important as "smart."

These are social justice attributes.

And in Novi I am committed to helping our students learn these lessons as well.

I want our students to learn these lessons so that we will not continue to close our eyes to the hatred that exists around us. I want our students to learn the lessons of social justice so that we can open our eyes and the eyes of others to the beauty of each and every life.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The end is near!

Tomorrow is the last day of school for students in Novi.


And, truth be told, my emotions are mixed.

The school year is taxing. Every day during the school year I feel responsible for the 6,400 students who attend schools in Novi.

I want every day to be meaningful. I want every day to have a purpose. I recognize that each day is precious. We are only given a limited number of days and the thought of wasting one fills me with sadness.

During the school year . . .

I worry about bus rides and lunches.

I worry about recess and passing time in the hallways.

I worry about athletic coaches and class/club sponsors and their interaction with our students..

I worry about how we protect our students and staff while they are at school.

I worry about our budget.

I worry about our profession.

I worry about the curriculum.

I worry about state assessments.

I worry about how accurately we are reporting information and insights to our students and our parents about achievement. 

I worry about what students are learning from the adults in the building.

There is a lot that I worry about.

However, the school year also provides me with great joy.

I find joy in the interactions that I see in classrooms.

I find joy in watching our amazing students as they perform on the stage and athletic fields.

I find joy as I see our students commit themselves to improving in our classrooms and practice halls.

I find joy as I see students play on the playground.

I find joy as I watch students eat lunch together.

I find joy as I watch bus drivers and food service workers talk to and joke with our students. 

I find joy as I see teachers collaborate and talk and learn from each other.

I find joy as we plan and build.

I find joy as I watch our parents fill with pride as they watch and listen to their own children.

The school year brings me a tremendous amount of joy.

So I am torn when the end of the school arrives. I know the worries of the school year will fade away over the summer. But I also know that I will miss the joy that comes with watching and learning from and interacting with students and staff.

The end of another school year has come. It is a time to celebrate what we have done. It is a time to prepare for what lies ahead.

May all of us have a wonderful summer!

Friday, May 29, 2015

To the class of 2015

We started together.

Four short years ago you were freshmen in high school.

I was the brand new Superintendent of the Novi Community School District.

For four years you and I have been learning lessons. We have grown. We have struggled. We have lost our way at times.

I have sat in my office with a few of you.

That's usually not a good thing. For students I am the office of last resort. When you get sent to my office it means that you have exhausted all of your chances. I was you last hope.

But I believed that you needed to be in school. So I gave some of you a chance.

And now here you are - about to graduate from high school.

I hope you learned from that experience that you shouldn't give up on people - and that means you shouldn't give up on yourself either.

All of us hit rough patches. Giving up shouldn't be an option. Finding the will to change directions is hard. But it is also worth it.

I watched many of you do marvelous things over the last four years.

You sang.

You marched in the band.

You played the baritone or the cello or the piccolo or the viola.

You threw a football.

You sank a basket.

You ran like the wind.

Some of you made robots.

Others competed against the very best entrepreneurs and marketers in competitions like DECA and came out winners.

You were National Merit Finalists and had perfect ACT scores.

You took AP and IB exams and have earned hours of college credit already!

Truthfully you are marvelous. So skilled and confident and capable. It has been a pleasure watching you grow.

Some of you I watched as you walked with heads down through the hallways. You looked sad or discouraged or upset.

I would say hello and get a shrug back.

You appeared to me to be like I was in high school. I was unsure of myself. I was not an athlete. I was not in the band. I went to school and came home. I had no voice, no presence, no sense of who I was or who I wanted to be.

What you should know is that high school is not the best part of your life. High school is a beginning. It prepares you but doesn't define you.

I went away to college and found my voice. My guess is that you can as well.

Most of you I will see one more time. At commencement as you walk across the stage I will shake your hand and wish you good luck.

I believe that you are ready. I have confidence that all of you will find your voice and grow into who you want to be.

Thank you for four great years.

Your Superintendent,

Dr. Matthews

Friday, May 15, 2015

Beating dragons!

I have never seen a real dragon.

But I have seen Smaug from The Hobbit and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon.

I have most assuredly felt the power of dragons.

Dragons bring chaos and threaten ruin.

There are weeks when it feels like all I do is defend myself and those I love from dragons.

It is at those times that it is wise to remember the words of Neil Gaiman.

neil-gaiman-quote

Friday, May 8, 2015

The good Dr. Webber and lessons about learning!

My friend and colleague RJ Webber graduated today - again.

He is now Dr. RJ Webber!

Dr. Webber looks happy and he should be. It is a wonderful accomplishment.

Dr. Webber is a wonderful mentor to me. He has a passion and a love for learning!

Dr. Webber has helped me understand that education is not about getting a grade or passing a class. Grades and passing a class have their place.

But the true value in education is understanding.

Understanding more about ideas.

Understanding more about how things work.

Understanding more about yourself.

Dr. Webber helps me see that my life's task is not about making sure that students get good grades or high test scores - although those things have their place. 

No - my life's task is about seeing that students learn to value learning.

Dr. Webber has helped me see that what is important in my life is making sure that the students who I have a chance to impact are willing to struggle and stretch and work hard to understand the lessons that they need to learn.

Dr. Webber has helped me see that what is important in my life is making sure that I am willing to struggle and stretch and work hard to understand the lessons that I need to learn.

Congratulations Dr. Webber. You have learned and you have taught your lessons well!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Appreciation for a job well done!

What do you remember about school?

It's probably not the problems you did in math or the essays that you wrote in English class. It's not the times that you had to find countries on a map or stand up in front of class to give a speech.

When I reflect back on my school experience, what I remember most are the people.

It's not that the people were by themselves memorable. It's what they did that sticks with me. The ones I remember most are the ones that made me feel special, important, like I was worth the effort.

Working in a school is not easy. There is a lot going on. Students are trying to figure our who and what they are going to be. Parents are focused on making sure their children get the attention they deserve. The state creates demands that at times seem unreasonable.

Through it all there are people who take time for students, who make students feel like they are important. The teachers, secretaries, food service workers, and principals who make a difference focus not on "school" but on kids.

The staff I remember most were people like this:


The staff I remember treated me like a real person. Whether it was with humor or a hello or a "Hey Steve, can I talk to you for a minute," these staff communicated that I mattered.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week.

In Novi, we extend it to Staff Appreciation Week, in recognition that everyone in our district contributes to our success and to the success of our students.

I would encourage you to take time this week to thank those people who work in the Novi Community School District.

They make a tremendous difference in the lives of every student.

Monday, April 27, 2015

What makes school significant (It's not the M-STEP)


We are in the middle of M-STEP, Michigan's state mandated assessment for students in grades 3-8 and 11.

This assessment, while it is not intended to do so, will determine our worth.

After the assessment we will receive in weeks (or months) our scores. These scores will be reported in the newspaper. These scores will be used to rank school districts. Academic champions will be crowned based on these scores.

But in the end, the test scores don't matter.

I reached this epiphany while reading Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. The book is about the conversations doctors and the medical professionals have with patients who because of age or life-threatening illnesses are facing the end of life.

The book is wonderfully difficult. It made me think about what is truly important in life.

But it also made me think about school. Gawande says the following when discussing the medical field: 

The problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all. Medicine's focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet - and this is the painful paradox - we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days. For more than a half century now, we have treated the trials of sickness, aging, and mortality as medical concerns. It's been an experiment in social engineering, putting our fates in the hands of people valued more for their technical prowess than for their understanding of human needs.

As I read those words it made me think of schools and education. Schools should not be defined by test scores. Schools should not be defined by many of the various metrics that appear on state reports or in the paper.

The problem with education and the institutions it has spawned to care for students is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all.

What makes school significant for students?

People, relationships, passion, discovering ideas, talking about ideas, learning who you are and what you care about.

State legislators and newspapers seem to think that the most important part of school are test scores and graduation rates and daily attendance. Those are important. But the schools that have high test scores and good graduation rates and high daily attendance are schools that don't focus on those things.

We can tell ourselves that high test scores are important. We can spend all of our time in school prepping students to take a test.

But in the end, those things do not matter.

I believe that schools that measure well on the new metrics of education do so because they focus on making school relevant and meaningful. Schools that focus on relationships and help students develop a passion for learning, those are the schools that understand what is truly important about education.

Medicine focuses on repairing health when the real discussion should be about what is significant in life.

Often the discussion in schools is about test scores when the real discussion should be about sustenance of the soul.

While I completely agree that schools need to ensure that students learn, that students have the skills they need to pursue their dreams, the more important discussions are about what students are passionate about. The more important discussions are how what we are learning applies to life outside of the school.  The more important discussions are about how school makes it possible for a student to follow their passion and make a difference.

We give the M-STEP because we have to.

What I want our schools to find are ways to sustain the souls of our students so that they can make powerful contributions to their family, their friends, and to society.