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.

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.

Bill Gate’s Keynote at the 2012 NAISAC Annual Conference

Below is that video of Bill Gates’ Keynote Address at the NAIS Annual Conference on Thursday, March 1, 2012. You can read the transcript here.

Bill Gates talks about four main trends in his speech:

1) Creating engaging and interactive ways of learning rather than using the traditional text book.

2) Using the internet to find, use, and share resources among teachers. A new way to collaborate between and among teachers.

3) Using social networks in positive ways both to enhance the learning of teachers and students.

4) Using technology, game play, etc. to provide immediate feedback for teachers and students.

Bill Gates mentions that these are the things he hopes he’ll be seeing in 10 years across the country.However, according to Mr. Gates, it is already happening at leading schools. How much of a leader in these areas are your teachers and your schools?

Having a network and being connected can be a great thing. I was teaching on the day Bill Gates gave his keynote, but  was able to follow some of the conversation via twitter and recently alerted that the video and transcript of his speech were now available, something Mr. Gates had promised to share.

Continuing to Learn

“When it feels like your brain hurts, you know you’re learning,” is something I say to my students from time to time.

I want to reflect and immediately share more on NAISAC12 and EdCampIS, but honestly, my brain is hurting a little bit. I have learned an immense amount and met so many incredibly passionate educators that I think I simply need some time to take it all in and process what I’ve learned.

For now, I couldn’t be happier with the success and energy of EdCampIS which wouldn’t have been possible with all of the participants, many of whom spent an extra day in Seattle to make this happen.

Thanks to one of my colleagues who helped organize the event, Jac de Haan, you can get a quick summary of the day through photos and quotes by checking out the main page of the edcampis website.

What I’d Like to Ask Bill Gates Next Week

Next week, people from many places associated with independent schools will be in town for the National Independent Schools Annual Conference here in Seattle. I’m excited about this week for many reasons and hope to write about them in the coming days.

One of the things I’m interested in is what the featured keynote speaker, Bill Gates, has to say. I won’t be able to hear him speak directly on Thursday as I’ll be teaching. I will, however, be able to follow his address through many various channels.

I read his opinion piece in the NYTimes on Friday about his thoughts on New York making teacher performance assessments public. I agree with him on many points. One of these is that making teacher evaluation assessments publicly available isn’t going to do anything to help improve teaching. I also agree with Gates’ statement that “Teaching is multifaceted, complex work.” I also think that his push for robust teacher evaluations that help give direct feedback to teachers so they can improve their practice is a good thing. Mr. Gates calls for trained peers and supervisors to provide this feedback. I would love to invite a team from his foundation come visit me teach, so I can get that direct feedback on how to improve. In return, I’d love to be trained so I can pass it on and give this feedback to others. If there’s a way to sign up, let me know.

Effective teaching requires complicated measures, and I don’t believe that we’ve reliably figured out what combination of those metrics are. Unfortunately, the term ‘teacher accountability’ tends to scare people away from “creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve.” As reported in an article titled “Teacher Quality Widely Diffused, Ratings Indicate,” the actual publication of New York’s assessments show that high and low performing teachers exist in every school regardless of wealth, neighborhood, or population.

The theme of the NAISAC12 conference is Innovation. I am a big fan of the work the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation do and think its research into improving schools will benefit us all.

The Gates foundation recognizes the need to implement new ideas, and even if those attempts at education reform don’t work, analyzing and learning from the data is important. Microsoft, the company Gates founded some time ago took many risks and has been very successful, but along the way, it has also produced some things that didn’t work as well as they’d hope (remember the Kin anyone?). That didn’t stop them. In fact, I’m quite excited to see Microsoft trying to be a player in the mobile world. It promotes innovation from all its competitors.

In today’s op ed section of the NYTimes there’s an article titled “True Innovation” about Bell Labs. Last year I read two great books about innovation and risks: Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and Tim Harford’s Why Success Always Starts with Failure: Adapt. Like so many things that end up being polarized, I think many things do not have to be either/or. The article and the books mention the need for both autonomy and collaboration. They are not exclusive of each other. The challenge is finding the balance, so that the continued cycle of improvement promotes both teacher accountability and innovative teaching.

If I had the chance, I’d like to ask Bill Gates this…

To fuel innovation, we often need to take risks. Risks come with many rewards, but they also come with failure. How do you balance teacher accountability while supporting and promoting innovative teaching?

If anyone gets a chance on Thursday to get behind a mic and ask this question, I’d love to hear his response. 


How Can Like-Minded Teachers Network? Organize an EdCamp

Being a teacher means that, for the most part you spend most of your day in a classroom with students. The rest of the time, you’re planning, preparing, assessing, reflecting, writing student evaluations, communicating with parents, and so on. The only real time you have to collaborate with others are the few times you meet with certain teachers at your school that happen to be on the same committee or task force, same grade-level or subject area team, or meetings that involve the entire faculty. On the rare occasion, teachers may happen to have lunch together, but it’s usually for a mere 15 minutes. If teacher’s schedules are so convoluted that they can’t meet to collaborate as often as they want in their own schools, then how can teachers network with teachers outside their own school and share some of the things they are doing?

Conferences are one way. They are designed to gather like-minded professionals together in one place. Conferences, however, are expensive. Unlike some other professional conferences that may include a golf junket in the Caribbean, teacher conferences are usually held in large US cities that are easy to get to. In these lean times, though, the opportunities to attend conferences have diminished.

Even at conferences, you have to work hard at meeting teachers who are passionate about the same things. For an introvert like me, meeting others is very difficult. Over the past couple of years, though, networking has become easier. First, I have to thank my school for sending me to a number of conferences these past few years. I don’t get to attend everything. My school has to say no sometimes. Perhaps it’s because I ask to go to a lot. What can I say? I love to learn.

As a teacher, networking is something I’ve had to learn how to do, and it’s not easy. For good or bad, we now live in a connected world. That has made networking easier. You can interact asynchronously with others, and they don’t even have to be in the same city. Eventually you will be at a similar conference and exchange ideas face to face. I wasn’t sure what twitter was all about and decided to give it a whirl a little less than a year ago. After all, what could one learn in 140 characters. But it’s not about that. When I hit the publish button for this post, I will have also sent out a tweet. That tweet will only have the headline, but it will also include a url to this post. If you have the right twitter reader, you will automatically see a preview of this post as well.

Twitter has led to a great deal of things, and I’ve managed to meet a few teachers. One of them, Kim Sivick was listed as one of 2011’s National Association of Independent School’s “Teacher of the Future.” I’m not a teacher of the future but Kim was kind enough to ask to put my blog on her blogroll at Teachers of the Future. The current post on there, titled “Conferences of the Future,” is written by Liz Davis, someone else I met (first through twitter) who is one of the organizers of the ‘unconferenceedcampIS. It’s FREE! It’s also something that I’m really excited about helping to organize.

So even if your school budgets don’t allow you to attend everything you want to go to, there are teachers who recognize the need to network beyond tweets and blogs. If you’re going to be in Seattle for the NAISAC12 conference, you can spend around $500 to hear Bill Gates speak (actually I’d do it if I could afford it), or you can come to The Northwest School a couple of days after and listen to your passionate colleagues speak for free! Already registered are Teachers, Heads of Schools, Deans, Parents, Consultants, Educational non-profits, and more. We have 11 states, D.C., and one Canadian province represented. What are you waiting for? Register now at http://www.edcampis.org – It will be a great networking opportunity!

 

Are Your Meetings Productive or Are They “Weapons of Mass Interruption”?

I had a really good meeting on Monday with three of my colleagues. Our school had an open house last night, and teachers in small clusters were asked to speak about their program for about 5 minutes as prospective families toured through the school. The purpose of our meeting was to collectively decide on what we thought would be the most meaningful way to convey what we do and why we’re passionate about it.

Why was this a good meeting?

1) No time was wasted disseminating information. One person in our group is new to our school this year and he was able to get that information ahead of time. We knew our purpose/agenda, and were prepared. We had our agenda well in advance and it did not consist of bullet points, but rather meaningful thought and decisions to be made. We came to the meeting ready to make those decisions.

2) Only those who needed to be at the meeting were there. We each needed to share ideas and agree on and make decisions. Everyone contributed.

3) We all left with an action plan with trust that each would execute his or her part.

4) We did not begin our meeting by reading memos or reiterating what was already communicated in emails.

5) We did not come to the meeting with solutions, but brainstormed ideas. It didn’t take long for each person to adopt an idea and then have us figure out how to link those ideas.

6) Everyone felt safe to share their ideas as we entertained them all before narrowing down our list.

7) We wrote it down, photographed it, recorded those ideas in some format (in fact, our four slides were completed before our meeting was over).

8) It wasn’t a get together of the passive.

9) The meeting took less than 20 minutes. No time seemed wasted.

10) Our meeting earlier in the week wasn’t a social visit. In fact we had a great dinner together last night before returning to school for our open house. We didn’t talk about what and how we were  going to present. Our meal was social and we kept it that way. Our meeting earlier in the week was to get work done.

I recently read a book called Read This Before Your Next Meeting by Al PittamPalli. That’s where I got the quote in the title of this post. There’s another passage I like that states, “The most talented among us know that they best serve the organization by making things. We add value only by producing work that contributes directly toward our goals and by initiating amazing work that wasn’t even asked of us.”

The positive psychology of ‘flow’ (the state in which we do our best work) has been referenced in many recent books including this one. We need to focus sometimes for long periods to do our best work, to get that flow. Meetings are interruptions that require us to start over again. Pittampalli states, “We’d have more time in the day to spend innovating and initiating new projects, instead of drowning in old ones that never seem to die…In a world with fewer meetings, we’d have more time for our real work, the work we do that actually propels our organization forward.”

In a school that has a mission, one that we strive to achieve and calls for change, meetings are essential. But those meetings have to be productive.

Here are some ideas on how to improve meetings:

1) Have an agenda with a clear purpose and have it available well-ahead of time so all who needed to contribute to the decision making  could come to the meeting prepared. Post the agenda on a google doc, so one could get feedback and questions ahead of time. A one-sentence blurb is not an agenda.

2) Don’t rehash the information. It’s time to say, if you haven’t read the information and you’re not prepared, you don’t need to be at this meeting.

3) Only invite those who need to be there. If I don’t have a part in making a decision or in contributing to that decision, don’t make me observe a meeting (there are more entertaining things to watch).

4) Record the meeting in some format. There are often those who are passionate and should be part of a meeting but can’t make it. They should be able to get the minutes (whatever the format) somewhere when they return.

5) Model the protocols you’d like to see teachers use with their students. Differentiate the meetings, use technology, make the problem we’re trying to solve clear.

6) Use the time in the meetings for people to make decisions and get important work done.

I think face-to-face social time is important too. I really appreciate it when colleagues check in on me, and I get a chance to find out about them, but those aren’t meetings. They’re conversations.

The author also states that group work sessions and brainstorms aren’t really meetings either. They’re important and purposeful.

What he says should change are those weekly meetings where everyone stops what they’re doing individually to gather as a large group. That large group should be working collectively to make decisions on complex problems that help the organization (in my case a school) get a little closer to its mission. We need to use that meeting time to decide and act. One can plan forever, but if you don’t act, nothing changes.

Another alternative for schools that have a weekly faculty meeting time set aside would be to use that time for continuous, sustained, professional development.

My school’s getting much better at using our weekly meeting time, but there’s always room for growth.