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.

What Can a Book Do?

It’s back-to-school time, and it’s always exciting and busy. I love this time of year, and this week has been a great one. We started our all-faculty gatherings this week. Though there’s a lot of work to do, it’s always nice to catch up with colleagues you haven’t seen over the summer and welcome new teachers, getting to know them a little better. It was also a great week as this blog was mentioned on cnn.com. I had never really been interviewed by the media before, so I wasn’t sure how I’d come across. It was a good experience, and I learned a lot. I was thankful for the first aid training we were required to take. I just hope I never have to use CPR on a child. There were numerous good moments this week, but I never expected it to end this way:

From Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac

In 2004, one of my students announced that they would not be returning to our school. His family would be moving to Italy. As a farewell gift, I gave him the book Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, a children’s mystery that I thought he’d enjoy.

Almost 7 years later, while visiting Seattle, they paid a visit to the school today and presented me with a different book with the same title. It was a photo book of my former student and his younger brother in front of every Vermeer painting. Inspired by the book and taking advantage of living in Europe, they planned many of their vacations around where these paintings were kept and set on a quest to see all 35 undisputed paintings (the 36th is stolen).

It’s always great when former students visit and I get to find out what they’ve been up to. It’s also rather incredible to know a children’s book can inspire such an adventure. Looking through the photo book this evening and seeing a third grader grow into a tenth grader standing next to all those paintings was truly a special way to end the week.

 

Technology Should Be Like Oxygen

The ending keynote at ISTE, Chris Lehman, did not focus his talk on technology,but on challenging us to dare students to do things with it. He said that technology should be like oxygen, “ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.” In the end, it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people using it and how they use it. As Chris said, it’s about “people, people, people.” What I enjoyed about the presentation was that he was introduced by his students from the Philadelphia Science Leadership Academy poetery slam group. Chris is the founding principal of that school and writes a blog called Practical Theory (yes, another principal who blogs). I was going to write about his keynote, but if you click on his blog you can see it for yourself. Both the words of the students poetry and ‘entire’ closing keynote, where he focuses on the ethic of care, citizenship and agency, and making learning relevant to students now, can be found at Chris’ blog. If you’re interested in watching the video of the keynote, I would visit his blog and start 32:20 into the video with his students’ poetry.

Another 8 Things Learned at ISTE

The final day of ISTE came fast and furious. To squeeze in more sessions, the breaks were shorter and there was no shortage of information overload. The ending keynote was given by the principal of the Philadelphia Science Leadership Academy (a public school working in partnership with the Franklin Institute), Chris Lehmann. Before he was introduced on stage, we were given three bits of advice: 1) Get it out of your brain (write about it, blog or old-style journaling), but organize and put it all somewhere; 2) Don’t wait to get started (try some of those new tools, reflect on how you’d use it with your class/school, etc.); 3) Share! I plan to do more sharing, but for now, here are 8 things I learned today.

8) I’d love to come back to ISTE and have others from my school to share the experience. It’s in San Diego next year, which might make this more feasible. Perhaps partnerships with nearby public schools.

7) We should take no greater pleasure than seeing our students eclipse us. (Paraphrased from Lehmann’s keynote.

6) The great lie of education is to tell kids, “You might need it some day.” Make it relevant. If they need to know it now, they will be motivated to do it now.

5) I understand resources cost money, but some companies are selling devices that no smart teacher would use if they knew the much much cheaper alternatives out there. There are document cameras at our school that cost over $600 (I won’t say who this vendor was). I found one for $75 from the company iPevo. Apart from no light source it’s a great simple to use document camera. The company had a booth and the people there were extremely helpful. When I asked about light source when lights are off, they offered a couple of solutions – one) a cheap desk lamp; 2) a small flashlight and some zip ties; 3) the exposure mode in the software (something new I learned). They were more about, “How can this tool help your kids,” and less about “buy this version now. It’s improved.” I know, different sales tactics, but if you start your pitch with my students, I will be more inclined to take the time to listen.

image from ipevo site

4) Jobs that are facilitated by tech are growing. Design, architecture, engineering, science, and in fact most jobs of the future will depend on the creative class (current trends, Daniel Pink, Richard Florida). Technology facilitates creativity. Those that can be replaced by tech will and should be (i.e. online math tutors in India for fractions of the cost). You cannot compete with price. This includes teachers who don’t see themselves as creative and aren’t learning when to use tech to facilitate teaching/learning. A teacher needs to matter to a student. If you look at Dale’s Learning Cone from 1968 or Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), they still hold true for how we learn and how important it is to focus as in the case of Dale’s Cone (the bottom) and in the case of Bloom’s Taxonomy (the top). With Bloom’s you cannot do the top if you don’t have the skills below it.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Dale's Learning ConeModified Blooms Taxonmy

3) A cartoon I saw that I loved had a boss yelling at an employee, “Get back to the cubical and start thinking outside the box!”

2) More early literacy resources at Readilicious (again, thanks to all presenters for posting their links, resources, etc.)

1) Don’t give your kids the answers. Let them grapple with it, predict, apply, be resourceful. A good metaphor was the horror movie: If there is a real intense scene and someone tells you, “don’t worry, the cops will arrive just in the nick of time,” that experience is lost. That is the same for kids’ learning. If you TELL them rather than let them DISCOVER it, you have just spoiled their learning experience/opportunity.

What an incredible 3.5 days! I have never before been this overloaded with information. Still the bottom line is this: No matter how much tech is out there. No matter how extensive your PLN is, you have to remember it’s all about relationships. The response you received from a question you tweeted didn’t come from a google algorithm. It came from an actual person. What a great experience to have met some of the actual people in my extended PLN. It’d be great to find educators public and independent elementary teachers who tweet locally. I’ll leave you with this: I am smart. My colleagues, students, parents of students, are collectively much smarter. My PLN is brilliant!

I will continue to share bits and pieces review the resources I’ve learned about and talk about a great book I’m almost through called The New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the  Imagination for a World in Constant Change  by John Seely Brown. The independent school group at ISTE has chosen this book as a summer book club book, and they’ve got the author to agree to a web chat sometime between mid-August and early September depending on the author’s schedule. I’m more than half-way through. It’s quick easy and thought provoking. If you’re a twitter user, Vinnie Vrotney will be hosting an #isedchat on July 21st. More details to follow.

If you’re interested on Chris Lehmann’s talk, you can get an idea of his philosophy through his TEDxPhilly talk.

Connecting Through Storytelling

At the TEDxEastsidePrep event I attended last week, there was one speaker told a very compelling story. Marcus Brotherton is an author, journalist, and, according to his speaker profile, an adventure motorcyclist.

He began talking about an earlier experience where, due to certain circumstances, he had to share a house with a crotchety 72-year old WWII vet for a landlord. It wasn’t until years later, when he had an assignment interviewing other WWII vets for his research, that he began to understand and reflect on what his landlord had taught him and perhaps why the old man behaved the way he did. Brotherton began to learn about developing empathy. He asked this question: How does one teach taking yourself beyond one’s self? Brotherton listed three things to develop:

  1. Invite people to tell their stories.
  2. Imagine the world through other people’s eyes.
  3. Suspend judgement.
With many education leaders talking about the brewing change upon us, and the challenges that lie ahead if we don’t adapt, Brotherton reminded us of what I think is the most important element in education – the connection between a student and teacher (that teacher may be another student, a parent, or anyone willing to make that connection). Brotherton also demonstrated very well that storytelling is a very effective way to do this. Empathy is a 21st Century Skill. Our students need to develop it, and so do we. I’m still working on mine.
The TEDx event was driven by inquiry and asked the following essential questions:

What could education look like in the next 5-20 years? What paths must we follow to develop engaged citizens in a digitized age?

  • What assumptions about our current education systems no longer hold based on new capabilities, new insights and new developments in the fields of brain and behavioral research?
  • What essential attributes must remain in future incarnations of our education system to be successful?

I think we know which question this speaker addressed.

“Emotions are the Foundations of Reason”

“Emotions are the foundations of reason,” says David Brooks in today’s TED talk, “because they tell us what to value.”

Mr. Brooks is one of my favorite columnists in the NYTimes. Articulate and smart, this TED talk shows that he is also very funny. It’s fascinating that he spent three years culling research about our need as humans to be social. He admits, that emotions are not something he is known for, but in his research has found that “reading and educating your emotions is one of the central activities of wisdom.”

He sums up what many colleagues have been saying for years – that EQ is just as important as IQ, if not more. We do, however, have to be reflective about our biases. By nature, humans need to be social, but according to Brook’s research, it’s the quality of the social connection that matters, not just the superficial connection.

I keep seeing these terms, ‘mindsight’; ‘theory of mind’; ‘sympathy’; ‘group IQ’ (although Brooks says it’s less about IQ than the quality of connections among the group) in most of the books I’ve read over the past couple of years. Learning how to empathize and using one’s emotions to drive one’s reasoning are extremely important skills to grow.

Early in his talk, Brooks mentions what many of my colleagues and I have said: we can build a fancy school building (and we did), but it’s the connections we make and the values we share with each other, the parents, and kids that make a great school. I’m lucky as we’ve got that too.

It’s been an exceptional year of TED talks and I highly recommend this one. Will you take the 18 minutes to watch it?