What Makes a School Great?

Almost a month has past since the NAIS annual conference, and many of the ideas shared are still present in the back of my mind. The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great,” and outgoing president Pat Bassett asked us to come up with our list of 25 factors that make schools great. His list is quite impressive, and it was hard to come up with 25 of my own. Instead, as I read each one, I began to see some commonalities among them all.

Relationships: Whether the focus is on students, teachers, families, administrators or the greater community, the things that make a great school on Mr. Bassett’s list all depend on forging strong relationships.

Communication: To achieve all those factors, a school needs to have excellent communication among all constituents.

Values: Whatever the values are for a particular school,  a school needs to be purposeful in its endeavors and have that work shaped by its values.

It’s hard to come up with a list of 25, but if you click on the link above and look at Mr. Bassett’s, I think you’ll see these three things woven throughout. Maybe you’ll see more.

How Can Kids Take Risks in a “Safe” Environment?

I’ve been guilty of telling parents of students in my class that we have a safe classroom environment where we encourage students to take risks. I’ve come to realize that risk and safety are are really oxymorons. What I mean to say when I use the word risk is that kids will try a lot of new things. They will get many of them wrong and fail, but when they succeed, the grit and resilience it took to get them there, will fuel them on to learn more.

In our traditional industrial age world, risk was not seen as something for the general public. Trying something new on an assembly line could mean getting fired. Many of these hierarchical structures exist, and schools are no exception. Because of this, teachers have to be fairly calculated when going out on a limb. Within our values statement at my school, we have the following:

Resourcefulness: We foster resilience and expect all to search and find, to fail and learn, to risk and succeed in a changing world.

It think it’s beautifully written, however, if we hold these values for our students, certainly we must hold these values for our teachers and other community members. Due to structures of schools (remnants of the 19th and 20th centuries), risks can be very costly.

Recently, Seattle teachers were suspended for boycotting a particular test. We teach our children to stand up, not to be bystanders, engage in politics and democracy, yet when teachers model these very things, the consequences can sometimes seem harsh. I guess it wouldn’t be that risky otherwise.

Before the NAIS conference, a colleague in California raised many questions about the NAIS’s boards decision on the new president-elect, John Chubb. While I am sure the board’s intentions are good, the announcement was a surprise. The letter, though written respectfully, asked hard and important questions. Yet, from what I heard at the conference, he was scolded for raising those questions.

Again I ask, don’t we want our students to be inquisitive, challenge the status quo, engage in the process (which can be amplified through social media), and think critically?

One of the reasons for academic tenure is so intellectuals can have debates and build support for those ideas publicly. They may end up being wrong, but at least they won’t be fired for it.

I’ve been known to ‘go rogue’  and ‘fight windmills’ but I’ve also been supported and guided as to how I might balance those things. Still, in a school with no tenure, challenging the status quo with a simple question, “why?” requires risk.

At the NAIS conference, there were calls to be revolutionaries, visionaries, rogues, vanguards, pioneers, mavericks, and change agents. Most of those kinds teachers were already at that conference. We were told to change paradigms and forge ahead.

Most other teachers, however, just want to love their kids and become excellent teachers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I met a first grade teacher who was only in her second year of teaching and was overwhelmed with the conference. “They’re asking me to be all those things, be culturally competent, employ project-based learning and design thinking, integrate sustainability in the classroom, use technology in ways I never thought possible, create a global teaching network, and that’s not even including just teaching 1st grade.

My advice to her, was that when I first started teaching almost two decades ago, all these things were foreign to me too. All she needed to do was think of her students first, know where to find support when she needed it, asked questions (lots of them), carry on when things don’t seem to be going well, and always be open to and willing to learn something. If she could do these things, she would find this career an incredibly rewarding one.

I’m not a big fan of words like revolutionary. They bring up different connotations depending on who you ask. George Washington was a revolutionary; so was Hugo Chavez.

“If We (Teachers) Can Be Replaced By A Computer Screen, …

…we should be.” Cathy Davidson

That was pretty much how the NAIS conference ended. It was the last slide for Cathy Davidson’s closing keynote. I couldn’t agree more with that statement.

For some teachers, it may seem a scary thought, but for most in attendance, it was validation that the we live in a very different world than we did even five years ago, and we need to adapt and prepare our kids for an unknown future.

Her most recent book is called, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. I recommend you visit her website and check out some notes from her talk here.

I am a big fan of Davidson’s work, and Davidson’s ideas resonate with me a lot, but I feel she can sometimes back herself into a corner with her beliefs, and rather than present her ideas with a more balanced approach, her arguments often come across polemical.

Take her statement, for example:

Move from critical thinking to creative contribution.

Both are important. I agree with Davidson that students need to build, make, do, invent, and so on, but they must be able to discern, analyze and evaluate while doing so. I think I know what she’s trying to say in that statement, but it still evoked a reaction from me.  Prior to mentioning this, Davidson talked about a website that appeared to be a great kid friendly resource on farm animals. It turns out that this website was an ad. We need to instill a healthy dose of skepticism in our students, prepare them to think critically.

I liked one of the tasks she gave the audience which was to list the …

Three Most Important Things We Can Do To Help Prepare Students For Their Future (Not Our Past)

Here were mine:

1) Develop a sense of wonder, play, and inquiry.

2) Learn how to find and use the resources needed to grapple with the questions they encounter.

3) To empathize, listen, network, and collaborate with humility and be able to discern between what is useful or purposeful, and what is superfluous or meaningless.

I know, there are a lot of things going on in the last one, but it was hard to come up with just three. I also had another response: Though I’m not religious, the following three things come from a prayer I learned as a child.

Serenity – to accept the things we cannot change

Courage – to change the things we can.

Wisdom – to know the difference.

 

I think we can prepare students for the first two of those, but the last one is something we have to learn on your own. I know I’m still working on it.

One of the things I enjoyed both this year in Philly and at home last year in Seattle was that the featured speakers were accompanied by “graphic recording artists” who captured visually, in real time, what was being said. Here’s a pdf of Cathy Davidson’s closing keynote.

Click for larger view.

All It Takes Is One Person

There were so many great ideas shared at the NAIS conference. Some were new, some validating, and some that challenged my own philosophy about education. While I need time to process and reflect, I also want to dive right in and push myself to try new things.

The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great” and the main keynote was Jim Collins, known prominently for his work “Good to Great.” He left the audience with 12 questions to ponder which I hope to do in the coming months. Rather than summarize his entire talk, which you can find here, I want to highlight something that stuck with me. He said that a great enterprise, be it a business or school had to pass three tests:

  1. Superior performance relative to your mission.
  2. Makes a distinctive impact on the world it touches. (If your school went away, would it leave an unfillable hole? Who would miss you truly and why?)
  3. Achieves lasting endurance, which means it’s great beyond any one leader. (Your school is not great if it cannot be great without you.)

Throughout the conference, I was reminded about these three things several people I heard speak. Here are two examples:

One of the general session speakers was Tererai Trent who grew up in what is now Zimbabwe. Married at 11 and mother of three by 18, her biggest dream was to get an education. She earned a doctorate in interdisciplinary evaluation. With the strong belief that education is the way out of poverty and a way to stop the mistreatment of women, she wanted to start a school back in the village where she grew up. As of today, she has helped build 8 schools.

Another session I attended was led by Lee Hirsch who made the documentary “Bully.” You can see the positive impact the film has been making at CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 page here.

Both these speakers set examples that pass the three tests mentioned by Jim Collins. Whether their intention was to impact one life or hundreds of thousands, their mission remained focused. It was clear to me that they let their projects become bigger than themselves, big enough to endure without them.

Both speakers did not do it alone. Tererai Trent, for example, received help from Oprah. Their dreams of change, however, were their own, and their belief that this change was achievable never seemed to wane.

The kids we teach are all dreamers. For lack of a better analogy, those dreams are like seeds. Maybe we play a role in planting some of those seeds. Maybe we don’t. Whether those dreams impact one person or many, part of our jobs as educators is to nourish those seeds and help them grow.

Reflecting on Presenting at #NAISAC13

One of the things I love best about learning is sharing that experience with my students. After all, learning is what I ask them to do each day. I learned so much from presenting at the National Association of Independent School’s (NAIS) Annual Conference, and it’s great to share the process with my second graders.

Today, for example, two of my students had to present something to the class. One shared with the class the adventure of her Flat Stanley, and the other presented a book report. It was important to let them know that what I am asking of them isn’t arbitrary, but something their own teacher engaged in last week. I didn’t talk about the topic of the presentation as that wasn’t pertinent to them, but I did briefly talk about the process.

The session at the conference was called “Revolutionize Your Professional Development.”

Description of session from conference program.

Description of session from conference program.

I presented with Kim Sivick, Liz Davis, and Shannon Montague. We all teach in different states, met initially through social media, and all had different reasons for wanting to present on this topic. One thing that we all had in common, though, was that we were passionate about this model of professional development, and wanted others to bring it to their schools.

Kim is a founding member of edcamps and on the edcamp foundation. Liz was instrumental in getting edcampIS to happen and has been involved in many other unconferences. Shannon and I have both helped organize edcamps, and Shannon recently organized PD in her school using the unconference format.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of risk involved when collaborating with four educators from four different parts of the country, but we trusted each other and we trusted the topic.

I remember that we all had this grand idea that we’d run a mini un-conference in order to inform, persuade, and have participants experience the process itself. The beauty of unconferences is that people get to partake in the conversation, not just sit and listen. We wanted to model good teaching practices and move away from the ‘sit and get’ lecture format that large conferences and other professional development workshops tend to favor.

During our first google hangout, about halfway through the meeting, after we had talked about resources, chart paper, and getting people moving out of their seats, we realized that we were possibly headed in the wrong direction. We needed to think about who our main audience was, and what our space would be like.

We all worked on what we thought our strengths were and started there. Liz suggested the framework: “What, So What, Now What.” We worked on our parts and played with google presentation, so that we could collaborate on the same document. Then once we were more or less agreed on our slide deck, we transferred them to Power Point and shared it through our dropbox accounts.

I was happy to give the ‘So What’ part of the presentation as I am a person who will dive head first into anything if there is a clear and meaningful purpose. I can list many reasons why I believe in this format of professional development, but I’m not an expert, so I pulled experts where I could. Daniel Pink for motivation, Carol Dweck for mindset, Roland Barth for collegiality, and Sir Ken Robinson for teacher leadership and bottom-up approaches to things (in which he used the word ‘revolution’). We couldn’t be happier. Just for good measure, I threw in a quote by Albert Camus for people to reflect upon when they were leaving. I knew it might have been a little much, but there are those who love philosophy. Besides, the quote fit, which was what was important.

“Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of rebellion.”

I also agreed to try and go through our slide deck and try to give it a uniform look, while respecting the content of my colleagues. I’ll share my thoughts about Power Point in a later post, but all four of us came from the same place, so that was easy.

The four of us met several more times virtually, gave each other feedback, revised, edited, and finally met in person the day before to make our final tweaks.

I have to say, I was anxious. Public speaking is not my strength, but I believe strongly that I  have to push myself to do what I ask my students to do. I also believe that in order to get better at it, I have to do it.

Well, I’m glad I did it. To spread the word of something I believe in, to collaborate with such amazing educators, to push myself to try something new, to have my school recognized, and to learn, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’m glad to be back in my classroom, but glad to know when I say to my students, “I know what I’m asking you to do is hard, but it’s rewarding,” I can say so truthfully.

Thanks to Kim and Shannon for uploading our slides.

Are Innovative Breakthroughs Accidental or Do They Require Hard Work?

What do you think of when you hear the term, “Slam Poetry.” My early experiences with slam poetry were not very memorable and usually consisted of overwrought and angry performances. The point they were trying to make was lost on me.

Then, last year, Sarah Kay, a spoken word poet, presented at TED. I was immediately captivated by the words she wrote, the way she organized them, and the way she delivered them. In an instant, my preconceptions about spoken poetry had changed.

Those attending the Thursday session of the NAIS conference were lucky enough to hear her as the closing speaker of the day. Speaking to educators she began with a poem about learning and growing up in New York (it was much more than that).

After her poem, she addressed school leaders about the theme of the conference: innovation. Innovation wasn’t simply bringing something new to the class each day. Innovation required breakthroughs. She described that there were basically two types of breakthroughs. The first kind is one that is accidental. They’re breakthroughs that happen in a moment, or occur when you have an epiphany. Something that fundementally changes they way you thought – a breakthrough that alters a paradigm you once held on to strongly. The other kind of breakthrough she talked about is the kind that requires an incredible amount of effort and time – something you work very hard towards before reaching that breakthrough. Once you get there, these breakthroughs can change your life. Sarah also talked about how children tend to have much of the first kind of breakthroughs, those aha moments. Adults, however, start to forget about accidental breakthroughs and begin to value only those breakthroughs that require hard work. We value that we’ve made on our own because we recognize the hard work to get there. We also tend to dismiss a lot of our own outside-the-box ideas or those that are brought to us by others. Though we embrace children who ask “What if…” questions, we are quick to discredit adults who ask the same or have differing ideas. Rather than be open to a potential breakthrough, adults tend to shut those ideas down and move on with the paradigm they are already comfortable with. Schools across the country are notorious for this, making education reform very difficult. I am not naive. I don’t believe that every new idea warrants merit. But a willingness to listen to them before dismissing them is extremely important.

Sarah Kay also talked about her very first teaching experiences, and how she began from stumbling, falling, and failing to realizing how to deconstruct something that was second nature to her into smaller bits. She claims that whether they are breakthroughs that come through rigorous work, or are accidental, we as educators need to find the balance. We need to

“equip our students  with the skills they will need to overcome obstacles and meet challenges – and we do that through innovation. Through teaching them new ways to approach old problems and old questions. But it’s incredibly important that in doing that, we also make sure to teach them to stay open to the idea of accidental breakthrough – things that they cannot prepare for – only keeping themselves open to the possibility. And so, to do that, we have to live that ourselves.”

She talked about being flexible and the learning that happens in-between. A teacher may have spent hours preparing the best lesson, but if a student steers the class down a meaningful “rabbit hole,” you just might want to go there. For the learning that occurs during those teachable moments are some of the best.

Sarah Kay then ended with a poem about the first person who taught her what it meant to be an educator: her elementary school principal. It’s an incredible 7 minute performance and I highly recommend viewing it.

It’s amazing how the culture of sharing is catching on. For those who were not available to attend the conference that day, so many of these resources are made available. By clicking on the image below, you can view her entire 25 minute keynote.

My Take-Aways from the Tiger Mom

The closing keynote at the NAIS conference was Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A year ago, the press used this book to paint a portrait of a villainous mother. The media generalized the differing parenting styles of Chinese and Americans making inflammatory statements in their headlines such as the Wall St. Journal’s “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”

I haven’t shared my thoughts on whether or not I found value to her talk, as my opinions about Ms. Chua’s memoire continue to vacillate. Though cynical about her keynote address, I wanted to approach it with an open mind. As she began speaking, she started with a great story about how the press storm caught her by surprise. I even started feeling for her when she described being on the Today Show and the first thing Meredith Viera asked was, “Are you a monster?”

Unfortunately she followed that story with one about a trip to DAVOS that seemed more about name dropping than it did about teaching or parenting. And so even though she may have ended up with more negative press than she initially bargained for, it certainly helped her sell her book and my sympathies began to wane. Interestingly, one of the names she dropped was Larry Summers who disagreed with her by saying,

“In a world where things that require discipline and steadiness can be done increasingly by computers, is the traditional educational emphasis on discipline, accuracy and successful performance and regularity really what we want?”

Mr. Summers went on to note two prominent Harvard ‘drop-outs’ Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg may not have had that much support from the kind of strict parenting to which Ms. Chua refers.

Ms. Chua said her book was meant to be a ‘funny’ memoir rather than a parenting guide and it was a way to reflect on how her strict parenting didn’t exactly work out when her second child turned thirteen.

Overall, while somewhat charming and engaging, I wasn’t too impressed by her talk. It was still validating to come away with these few thoughts.

1) Have high expectations for your children/students.

2) All children are different and we need to recognize this.

3) Self-Esteem must be earned.

One thing I enjoyed from the conference were the illustrators that were engaged in live visual note-taking for each of the main speakers. Below is an example of Ms. Chua’s.