Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Take Risks, Learn From Mistakes, and Always Think Big Picture

If you have read this blog before you might have ascertained that I am a presidential history buff. I believe that there are a lot of good and bad examples of leadership in American Presidential history to from and I am a history teacher at my core. So naturally, parallels to the Commander and Chief are a reoccurring theme in my reflective process. But there are a few things that I think teachers and school leaders can learn from our greatest heroes. As long as we all start with the understanding that humans are flawed and Lord knows so are presidents, we should be fine in drawing comparisons.

Take Risks
There have been Presidents in our history who have not wanted to risk anything for the greater good of the country. Those presidents usually only serve one term and are often considered "lame ducks." 
As educators we should be confident enough I our talent, values, and goals to take a leap of faith. If we never take risks, our rate of progression will slow down. The best teachers have completely bombed lessons on more than one occasion and have lived to tell the tale. Mediocre teachers stay the same without ever moving past their comfort zone.
Abraham Lincoln assembled a cabinet of the very men who rivaled him in pursuit of the presidency. This was a major risk, but he knew it was best for the country. And as you know, aside from a few glitches, his risky appointments paid off.

Learn From Mistakes
When called into leadership, mistakes should be anticipated. I believe one of the most essential characteristics of strong leadership is not being afraid of mistakes. However, mistakes are a tool for improvement. The same mistake cannot be made repeatedly in the pursuit of greatness.
John F Kennedy is one of the more complex presidents to examine having been assassinated early in his presidency. However, there are two distinct events that shaped his presidency: The Bay of Pigs Invasion and The Cuban Missile Crisis. In one of these JFK was embarrassed but in the latter he was viewed as a savior. JFK learns from the Bay of Pigs to assert his strength rather than tip toe around what is facing him.
As School Leaders we must always learn to improve. Our students will see that, recognize it is human, and respect us for adjusting. There is no room for egos, pride, or stubbornness as we aim to provide top notch education to our students. Each week, each month, each semester and each year we should adjust to fix our mistakes.

Always Think Big Picture
When trying to accomplish major change, naysayers will always  let themselves be heard. Negative energy enjoys company and those who live in that space will try and keep you there. It is important to stay the course with the greater good in mind.
George Washington (you may have heard of him) was given the keys to the country. Early Americans were ready to make him leader till death. In fact, he was reluctant to take the job but his colleagues wouldn't take no for an answer and Washington knew it was best for his country. Against popular approval, Washington only stayed in office two terms(setting a precedent) and asked only to be called Mr. President (rather than your highness as some had proposed). Many felt that Washington should have taken more authority while others argued he should have taken less. However Washington acted in the bet interest of the country rather than being swayed by naysayers.
We as teachers and leaders must always be acting for the greater good of our students. Sorry to say but that takes precedence over all else. Some things we do may not always be popular but if we can go home and tell ourselves that everything you are doing is best for kids, there can be no argument against it.
We as educators must live these characteristics. Just like presidents, we come into our position with different life experiences, political views, and personalities but we act in the interest of our students above all else. Just like the presidents it is not an easy job but that is why we are called to be great. Have a Merry Christmas and a happy new year. Leading is Teaching.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Teachers in Action: Why Teachers Should Observe More Often

Like I have said a few times in this blog before, the teaching profession is much different than most. One of the major abnormalities of the teaching profession is that we rarely have the opportunity to watch other teachers in action. In other words, we don't have much to compare our class with since we haven't seen many others. I believe that peer to peer observation is an excellent way to sharpen our craft.
There are many different ways in which we evaluate ourselves such as student feedback, data, classroom response to lessons, formative assessments, and the overall "groove" of our class amongst other criteria. However, where do we get our ideas? We read about them, we think them up, or we hear something that we think is worth trying out. But what if I told you that right down the hall, a teacher was doing something that would work great I your classroom? Wouldn't you want to go see what it was? That is why peer to peer observations are so beneficial.

In most professions you have the opportunity to see others work. You can see what works for them, and what might work for you. You can observe their talents and visualize how your work flow could mesh with theirs. Because of this opportunity, you are more likely to improve more rapidly because rather than coming up with it on your own, you see it with your own eyes. To go even further, in a small school you have the chance to observe the Sam student you have, have had, or will have with another teacher. Let me tell you, that experience is an eye opener.

Since moving into administration I have has this wonderful opportunity this year. In addition, I still teach a Native American Studies class. The chance to observe has made me realize the areas where I can improve and areas where I could use some fresh ideas. When teacher are able to watch each other at work, they become better for it.

We recently began the Instructional Rounds process in which we observed all of our teachers with one school goal in mind. We did not right down how each teacher performed. We merely took objective notes with no names attached, scrambled the notes and then asked ourselves, are we meeting the goal and what can we do to meet it if we are not. This process has led to improvement school wide. And teachers were the driving force behind this positive change.

Administrators need to create time for teachers to observe each other. We spend thousands to bring in professional development when observing another teacher is often just as beneficial. This should be a priority in all schools.

We need to take out the evaluative and negative tone out of observations in schools. We need to come to an understanding that we must do whatever it takes to make our schools the best that they can be. We need to do all we can to be great teachers and great school leaders. If we truly want this we should be open to watch others and open to be watched I our classrooms. When those barriers are removed, we will become better at our craft and our students will receive a better education because of it. Leading is Teaching.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

5 Things I Have Learned About Students

Teaching is a job that can take many forms. Many people think that the job of the teacher is to deliver the content of their subject area to the students and to hold them accountable for learning that content. However, once you spend a week in the classroom as a teacher on a week on campus as an administrator you know that it is much more than that. Teachers are mentor's, friends, disciplinarians, coaches, psychologists, doctors, comedians, inventors, carpenters, IT personnel, and performers amongst many other jobs. The truth is, there is no handbook on how good teaching is done. Sure we have teacher preparation courses and tons of books on the subject (I hope to write one soon), but we are all so very different. Students come from all walks of life and so do teachers. So I figured I would just mention a few things I have learned about students that have helped me adapt in my pursuit to be an impacting educator.

1) We cannot treat all children the same because they are not.
The initial response to this may be, "That isn't fair to treat children unequally." That is not what I am saying. Actually, there is a difference between equality and equity. What I am saying is that our job is to teach students to their full potential and there are many different ways to accomplish this. Some students will respond to tough love, while others will shut down. Some students will be inspired by your words of motivation while others need you to show it with the act of side by side support. But it all comes down to knowing them and understanding where they are coming from. It is important to embrace their different talents and interests because that is what makes our classes fun.

2) Humor can break down the biggest barriers with students.
Many educators have had that moment when the student who was completely disengaged finally cracked a smile. That is typically the beginning of progress. Think of all the toughest moments in life and think of how often it is humor or common ground that bring us comfort. In environments without humor, it is hard to enjoy anything. Of course, there are scenarios when there is too much humor going on but the quickest and most effective way to create a bond is through humor. If there is smiling, laughter, and light heartedness within the walls of your classroom and you are managing that at a healthy level, chances are you are doing something right.

3) Students will only accept challenges if they trust and respect you.
 We all have the desire to push our students to their maximum capacity. We want our students to exceed expectations and reach high levels of learning. Well, I believe that in order for us to teach like that, our students need to feel compelled to do so. If we are leading an expedition, our students need to know that we will not leave them stranded in the wilderness. We need to build up to success. We need to provide them safety nets rather than threaten them with failure. The lifelong A student will always be intrinsically motivated for success. But what are we doing to make our C students motivated to succeed. We are leaders and effective leaders inspire faith in their followers. What are we doing to inspire faith in our students?

4) Students will perform at a higher level when they are interested.
Lets get this straight, students will never be 100% interested, 100% percent of the time. However, the more often they are interested, the more often they will perform at a higher level. There are always building blocks that need to be established that aren't thrilling but we need to infuse interesting topics to inspire achievement. Think about the most productive and successful moments or projects in your life. Chances are, you were not bored while doing it. A quiet classroom is good sometimes but the constantly silent room is probably filled with a good amount of boredom. What are we doing to keep students interested, active, and inspired.

5) The moment when you have a breakthrough with a student will change your life forever.
Schools often feel like battlegrounds. Teaching is tough. Students are not always the most endearing characters. But those moments when you connect with them or have significant breakthroughs with them are worth all of the effort. I believe that educators have the best job in the world. We see growth, impact, revelation, and many eye opening moments throughout the year. I think we are very fortunate to have that opportunity.

These are just a few of the things I have learned about students. I learn just as much everyday as they do. That is why I think it is so important to reflect from time to time. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Inquiry and the 10,000 Hour Rule

Recently I have been reading Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" for the second time. Like all of his books, Gladwell poses some thought provoking theories about society, behavior, and the human mind in this book. However, the element that is sticking out to me the most this time around is the 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell cites the "ten thousand hour rule" as the rule in which it takes ten thousand hours to become a world class master of anything. Whether it be playing the piano, shooting free throws, writing a blog, or ice skating, it take that many hours to become elite. Well that seems simple enough to me. However, what compels me is where the motivation lies while performing the "ten thousand hour rule."

As you all know, we do not, and never will have ten thousand hours with our students. Those classes where they are analyzing text, working out math equations, creating a story, or using the scientific method will not add up to 10,000 hours, let alone 10,000 hours doing any specific skill. So how in the world can we help to make our students masters of anything? Well, I believe it starts with creating a foundation of skill, and promoting inquiry within our students.

Think of what you have mastered or are currently trying to master in your career and life. Why would you spend that many hours on one particular skill? The truth is that we only spend that amount of time on something we value or something we believe will benefit us in the long run. That is where inquiry comes into play with our students.

I feel that we must encourage our students to have inquisitive minds in order to shape them into people who will one day be masters of something. We need to teach them that trial and error, repetition, experimentation, and persistence are all elements of success. This could obviously come in many forms from Skateboarding to engineering. As educators we must plant the seed of inquiry in their hearts and minds so that it will carry over into their adult life.

The skills of reading, writing, research, presenting, collaboration, and organization are all very important but we must inspire our students to be invested in those things and realize the value they hold in conjunction with their interests.

How do we do that? We give the students a framework of required skills and practices but we combine that with choice. We allow our students to experiment and explore without our constant intervention. We design projects that allow them to fail and learn from their mistakes. We give them the reigns and we help them when they fall behind. We encourage them along the way to persist and take risks. This is what inspires inquisitive minds, passionate people, and future masters. This is what conditions our students to not give up when they miss their free throws in life. As we know, the best motivation is always intrinsic and I believe that this is how we inspire is. Are your students going to embrace the ten thousand hour rule? Leading is Teaching.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Teachers: The Great Ones Will Be Great

This year marks a major change for most schools in California. Schools are beginning the transition to Common Core Standards. This is undoubtedly difficult for some teachers and parents to embrace as the standards will be significantly different in their intention. The Common Core Standards focus on higher level thinking, analytical reading, project driven instruction, technology based assessments and a focus on depth of content rather than breadth. In other words, students will be asked to think differently and produce work unlike what they have for the last ten years. As a result, there are, and there will continue to be harsh criticisms from the public on the move to Common Core. However, this move, like all education reforms will not stop the "Great Ones" from teaching our students.

Common Core is not different from the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) days in that it is a politically driven push to positively impact change in education. The primary intention of the advocates for Common Core is to raise accountability without compromising high level learning in the classroom. Either way, it is a mandated movement that requires the majority of schools in our state and most others, to play the "standards game." Despite all of this, I am here to tell you that none of this matters to the "Great Ones."

When I say the "Great Ones," I mean that teacher who could teach students effectively with a stick and a rock. I mean the teachers who find a way to make their class fun, challenging, rewarding, and inspiring all at the same time. This is the teacher who holds students accountable, makes them feel important, drives them to be curious, and motivates them to work hard. I am talking about the teacher who we remember and will always remember. The great ones are the teachers who focus less on curves and more on skills and experiences. We have all had a great one and our lives have been enriched because of them.

I am a believer in using technology to its maximum to enhance the learning experience in schools. I have seen awe inspiring things going on throughout our country with the use of technology. I am amazed at the tools by which we can create and learn in this day in age. However, technology alone will not teach our students effectively. We need great ones to do this. Great ones use the technology to support the approach they have already been mastering. Great ones see technology as a means to an incredible end. They recognize that technology can make their teaching style thrive even more and they realize that they cannot abuse it.

Great ones have begun to shift the teaching and learning model. They understand that students need to explore, create, design, and solve on their own with the teacher as the guide. Great ones design projects and assignments that force the students to stretch their skills but they are there to support them when they need it. Students benefit from this collaborative atmosphere and gain skills that will help them vastly in this day in age. Because we all know that the work force that awaits our children is much different from the one we faced out of school.

So what does this have to do with Common Core? Well, Common Core is not the answer or the problem we should be pointing to. Technology alone will not make our schools improve. We should be worried about finding and molding the great ones. The great ones will adapt to the Common Core and make it effectively their own without  compromising the great learning experience of their students. The great ones will use technology effectively because they realize our students need to know how to use it for their success. The great ones could be dropped in any time period and make a difference in our students lives.

Are you a great one? Do you know a great one? What are you doing to help support the great ones? Common Core is the reality that we face as schools. Some think that is a great change in our schools. Others think is not the best time or the best model to shift to. However, our biggest concern will always be looking for the great ones to teach our kids. Leading is Teaching.tech

Thursday, November 7, 2013

5 Ways to Make Our Students Leaders

I just finished a book called "Tribes" by Seth Godin. It is an inspiring book that examines how leadership develops and groups form around movements that they connect to. Godin provides many examples of how "Tribes" or movements were formed because someone chose to make a difference at all costs. He discusses the challenges that arise for leaders who choose to venture away from the status quo and the process by which leaders are faced with tough decisions en route to their goal. The book caused me to reflect on the effect that schools can have on the development of leaders.

There are many elements to leadership but there is really one driving force behind true leadership. I believe that great leadership is the effort of one person or a small group to take the necessary steps to reaching a common goal within the boundaries of integrity. In other words, a leader shares a goal that is deemed important by his/her group (or tribe) and is willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal. This typically will take hard work, commitment, persistence through adversity, and the confidence to carry out the steps. Last but not least, it takes a service oriented attitude to be a leader. After all, true leadership starts with trusting that the leader is acting in the best interest of the group.

As I reflected, I came up with five different ways that we can teach our students to be leaders:

1) Teach our students to set goals and reach them.
A true leader has clear goals in mind and creates successful methods to reach them. It is important that we have continuous conversations with our students about goals. We should talk to them about long term and short term goals. It doesn't always have to relate to grades or college. But our students should learn that if they commit to accomplishing something, they will.

2) Teach our students to overcome adversity.
This is something that coaches know well. Our students need to understand that facing a challenge or going through tough times, is just part of the journey to success. Most of us have had defining moments in our lives where we were faced with the decision to give up or press on. We need to teach our students to press on and that failure is just part of the equation. A leader does not let one mistake or failure keep him/her down. They persist and overcome.
Teach our students to be risk takers. If you don't take risks, you will never do anything original. If you fail, you won't make that mistake again. But that learning process is invaluable.

3) Teach our students to follow when they need to and to have a servants heart.
A good leader understands that they must do what is best for the group. Sometimes that means taking a backseat and allowing others to lead. Leadership is not showing how amazing you are, rather it is more about service to others. We need to teach our students to recognize the strength of others and maximize them for the better of the group. A good leader delegates tasks rather than taking everything on themselves.

4) Teach our students that collaboration and working well with others is key to success.
 I am sure that if you ask most successful people what made them that way, many of them would say the ability to work with others. If people don't like to work with you, it will be very hard to accomplish things in life. We need to teach our students to work with other productively rather than give in to their desire to work alone. When someone can collaborate, they are a huge asset to the group. This is not a natural skill. Collaboration takes practice and patience. If we can help our students master this, they will be true leaders.

5) Teach our students to be organized.
I have met a lot of people in my life who have been very talented but very unorganized. In fact, there have been many periods in my life where I was that kind of person (minus the talent). But when we can maximize our talent by being organized, we are much more likely to be successful. We all have different ways of staying organized but if we teach our students to find their organization process at an early age, it will save them years of frustration. A true leader has a clear and concise method of organizing themselves and others.

*Bonus- Teach our students that hard work feels good.
Lastly, we need to teach our students that when you work hard, it feels good. Think about those moments in life where you finally finished something you had worked so hard for. Didn't it feel great? If our students experience this often at a young age, they will want it more and more throughout their life. True leaders know this feeling and strive to maintain it.

If we continue to teach our students these skills, they will be successful. Success and leadership come in a lot of different forms but I feel that these skills are universal. Leading is Teaching.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Making the Team

When I was a Freshman in high school, I had a couple of experiences that had a lot to do with shaping who I am today. I was born into a football family. My Grandfather was a coach at the local community college, my father had been the quarterback of the year in Orange County when he was in high school, and my brothers were both starting on varsity as sophomores. Needless to say, there were high expectations for me as I showed up on day one. So naturally I was moved up to JV as a Freshman. I thought that the road was paved for me and it was only a matter of time before I became the starting running back on Varsity. However, what I didn't anticipate was that I was not ready. After a few weeks, I was moved down to the freshman team. This was a humbling experience.

On the Freshman team I expected to start immediately but instead I had to earn my position. The coaches were hard on me, knowing that I had the raw talent, but needed to develop the fundamentals. They would challenge me, and I would say to myself, "I am going to do everything that it takes to exceed all expectations." It was a slow start but I bought into what the coaches were saying. I started to realize that if I was willing to work hard and be a leader on my team, success would follow. I learned that I could do nothing without the respect of my teammates and our combined effort. This learning experience paid off. I dedicated myself to being a team player and working hard year around. In my time I broke records at the school but that didn't matter as much as our team's accomplishments. We won our league multiple times and won a section championship. It was more rewarding to accomplish our goals together than to receive any personal accolades.

The other experience was in band. I loved music and I was committed to being in the band while also playing football. I would play on Friday and then march with my tuba on Saturday. But what I didn't realize at first was that band was just as much of a team activity as football. I thought I was playing music for myself because I loved it, but my teacher showed me that it meant way more than that. I was goofing off one day in band and my teacher stopped the whole class in the middle of the song. He sternly told me, "This is not all about you. If you think it is, then this is not the place for you."At first I was angry because he embarrassed me, but it didn't take me long to realize he was right. He ended up being one of the most influential people in my young life and I have memories with the music program that I will never forget.

These two events had a profound impact on my time in high school and consequently the rest of my life. Sports and Clubs helped me to realize that hard work, commitment, team work, and sacrifice are important ingredients to success. These experiences also taught me that you can accomplish more as a team and it is much more fulfilling to do things for others rather than doing them for yourself.
This is why I think it is so important that we challenge students to be involved outside of the classroom. Students need to be connected and active in something that is not self serving. If they put time into something other than what is required, they will be the ones going above and beyond in their career rather than clocking in and clocking out.

Students need to learn how to triumph through adversity, practice to improve, and try again when they make mistakes. If our students learn the values of team work and commitment, they are more likely to be successful. If they learn to serve others and work for a common goal, they will be prepared for whatever comes their way. I am privileged enough to see this happening everyday at my school. And I am reminded that there was a time when I was learning those same lessons. Leading is Teaching.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Little Rebellion Now and Then is a Good Thing

Thomas Jefferson once said, "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing." To completely understand what Jefferson meant you have to examine him as a person. For a number of reasons, he was a complicated and controversial leader. Jefferson said many things one way, but acted in a much different way in regards to slavery, politics, religion, and education. However, Jefferson understood one thing very well and that is that there are times when it is important to challenge the status quo when the climate is changing. He also understood that "rebellion" is not meant to persist when it has run its course.  The balance that Jefferson found in this knowledge helped him to be one the most impacting leaders in American History.
Being the history teacher that I am, let me continue with some examples. The Commanche tribe were a small, dwindling tribe before the introduction of the horse. The Pueblo revolt dispersed wild horses throughout the Southwest and the Commanche soon adopted their lifestyle to the horse. Many of the other tribes decided not to make use of the horse and some decided to only use it sparingly. Because of the Commanche's willingness to embrace this new creature, they became one of the most powerful tribes in all of North America. So much so that the Texas Rangers had to be establish to combat them, because the old tactics of the US Calvary proved to be worthless against the Commanche.
Abraham Lincoln understood that his most important job in 1861 was to preserve the union. He also understood that our nation could not continue on the path of slavery. Before the 13th Amendment was passed, many argued against it because they felt that it would extend the war with the Confederates. Lincoln understood that ending the war and ending slavery were both necessary. The war and the end of slavery completely changed the landscape of the south. He also understood that against all odds, he had to push for its passing because the Emancipation Proclamation would not be enough. Many tried to convince him that he must end the war first before tackling the slavery issue.  However, Lincoln, understood that the two were inseparable and although he died in the process, the end of slavery is his greatest legacy.
Steve Jobs was not a very popular person in his younger days. He was known as someone who was difficult to work with and someone who was not committed to fitting in with the hi-tech community. When Steve Jobs And Steve Wozniak began their work together, they were starting a quiet rebellion that would resonate for generations to come. The Steves were primed to make technology accessible to all rather than just a few. They were willing to put in hours and hours in their quest to make a change. The rest is history.
What does all of this have to do with education? Well, we are currently in the midst of a huge transition and and reawakening in education. Technology is being introduced into classrooms as we speak. Some educators will choose to use technology to join the small  "rebellion" against the old status quo. Some will choose to not utilize the technology to its full capacity. We must transform education.
I am not saying that there are not great fundamental teaching practices that must carry over. Good sound teaching must always persist. Students must focus, they need structure to their environment, they need the teacher to be active as a guide to learning. As I always say, a good teacher could teach with a stick and a rock. However, we also must embrace the fact that our kids are stepping into a different world that requires them to work with technology. This takes a transition from the status quo. We may not like the inundation with technology. We may see teachers struggle to effectively use the technology for higher level thinking. However, we must work to overcome and adapt to make our students successful. We as educators owe it to our students to work tirelessly to effectively make the transition to meaningful, challenging, and relevant learning through technology. Technology is not the "rebellion" or revolution that I am talking about. The revolution is our ability to use that technology in a meaningful way to make our students successful in the classroom and beyond! Leading is Teaching.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Project Based Learning is Not All Fun and Games

As I see many schools start to revamp their school wide strategies to be more "Common Core Friendly," I feel compelled to make a case for project based learning on a number of levels. Common Core Standards call for more rigor, critical thinking, reading comprehension, writing, and the ability to analyze text to present findings. In my opinion, this fits perfectly with Project Based Learning. However, the first and biggest step to moving towards Project Based Learning is to dispel all of the rumors associated with it. When many educators think of Project Based Learning, they think of fun and games. They think of month long projects that involve making castles out of marshmallows and performing skits to explain the functions of microorganisms. Although, these two projects do sound like fun, they are far from what Project Based Learning actually sets out to accomplish.

According to the Buck Institute For Education, the following is the definition of Project Based Learning: "In Project Based Learning (PBL), students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student "voice and choice," rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products & presentations."
Clearly this definition does not sound like students are playing around without any direction. In fact, it reveals the true complexity and focused intent of Project Based Learning. It requires students to ask important questions and find the answers through research with the teacher's help.

As I observe classes at our Project Based School and research similar models throughout the country, this point has been reaffirmed time after time: Project Based Learning, contrary to public perception, actually requires more structure than a traditionally based classroom. Many people in education would find that assertion to be ridiculous but if you examine the definition carefully, then it cannot be denied. In a PBL classroom, the teacher is responsible for creating the project, providing the framework in which the students will work, establishing check points in which students will be evaluated on progress, working as a guide to help the students in their process, and grading the student's final product. In a non-PBL environment the teacher will create the assignment, lecture to give information, assign reading, and grade. This is not to say that non-PBL teachers do not work hard, because we all know that they do. I had some incredible teachers who worked outside of this model and have many friends who do as well. However, it does reveal that Project Based Learning, if done properly, takes a lot of work and structure to be effective.

Many people have arguments against standardized testing. However, nobody I know would argue against school accountability. To have accountability, you need data to measure the "success" of schools. On a National scale, it is very difficult to measure students in a non-multiple choice format. The same goes for the classroom. It is easy to manage multiple choice tests, lecture, and worksheets. It is very difficult to manage project creation, detailed rubrics, projects that are scaffolded, and student monitoring through the process. However, the latter is the more genuine way of learning in my opinion. The teacher is the guide and the students lead the learning. How did you learn to change the oil? How did you learn the sweep on your football team in high school? How did you learn to drive? It would have been much easier for these things to be taught through lecture (maybe not driving) but you learned by doing. That is the basis for Project Based Learning. It shifts the teacher's role, it requires students to get outside of the comfort zone, and it challenges them to think for themselves.

If a teacher rolls out a project that does not fit this criteria, then it is not Project Based Learning. This is very difficult to implement and make successful. However, just like the students in a PBL model who have to figure it out through trial and error, so must we. It will take structure, time, patience, and tenacity, but it is a great model for kids to get a real world and relevant education. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Creating a Culture of Caring

Every single person that I know of has had a bad day. One of those days when all you want to do is be at home by yourself with the sheets over your face. Hopefully we don't have too many of those days, but we all know what it feels like. So we all understand that when you are having a bad day, conflict with another person is magnified because of the state of mind you are in. Now think about this in the classroom.

Each and ever student that walks onto campus each morning has a unique set of experiences that comes with them. Many students have had to overcome hardships that we cannot imagine. Many deal with struggles that may not seem drastic to us, but they are overwhelming to the student. Teachers also come to school with a unique set of experiences when they come to class. These experiences, struggles, and hardships are real to whomever is facing them. A student could be having the best or worst day of his/her life. Likewise, the teacher may be having the worst or best day of his/her life.

There are so many examples of teachers or student not understanding each other and that leading to failure in the classroom. A teacher may feel that the homework was of the utmost importance, but may not realize that the student is facing seemingly insurmountable odds at home. A student may be acting up and not realizing that the teacher is experience hard times.

How in the world do you tackle this reality? How can a teacher possibly understand the context in which the student arrives each day? Well the answer is easy. Schools and the teachers in them must create a culture of caring. Students need to know that the teachers are there because they love them and that there is support in the classroom. The teacher may not know every detail about the struggles of the student, but the respect is there and that means the world. We cannot have success in schools if we do not have relationships in schools. This starts with an enthusiastic hello, compliments, questions about the weekend, humor, showing up to events in which students perform and communication home. If students see this support and love, they will be there for us as well on our bad days. Our most important job starts with caring about kids. If you have that at your core, the rest is just about working hard. Be there for your students on their good days and bad days. Leading is Teaching.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Teaching Innovators and Shifting Learning

If you have been through a college class you have probably gone through this. You find yourself studying all night, pouring over the books, using flash cards, and reading through your sloppy notes that were taken in a hurry as your professor rambled through his/her lecture. Then you woke up the next day (or you just stayed up all night), went to class, took the final (hopefully passing it) and proceeded to forget everything you remembered from the night before. I would say that there was learning going on in those situations but maybe not in the same way that you might think. I would say that you learned that sometimes you have to buckle down and work hard through something that you might not want to. I would say that you learned that you have to meet deadlines to be successful. I would say that you learned the value of finishing something in route to accomplishing something bigger. But I would not say that you genuinely learned a ton about whatever subject you just crammed for. That is not to say that all college classes are like this because I know that many of mine were so much more significant and provided great learning opportunities. However, this scenario brings to mind the notion of learning and the shift that must take place in our education system.

Tony Wagner is a Harvard Professor and author whose research has been focused on American education, how it compares globally, and what we need to do to improve our system to sustain our country's level of success. In his book, "Creating Innovators" Wagner points to the fact that information memorization is not learning in the 21st century. Students can google or easily research any subject they wish. His call to American institutions is to teach our students what to do with the information, how to qualify it, and how to be innovative with our vast amount of resources.

Tony Wagner has spent hours in U.S. schools and Universities studying classrooms that allow for students to be innovative, creative, and independent. He adamantly states that if our schools do not teach students 21st century skills (which include communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking) we will be at a competitive disadvantage globally. Think about the job market today. How many of our service and labor jobs are off shore? That is not to say that those kinds of jobs don't exist in the United States, but in every industry we need to teach our students the skills it takes to be successful in our ever changing economic model.

The United States has not scored incredibly well on international test in the last decade. Our education system has not scored in the top ten in quite sometime (the credibility of these tests are up for debate). However, countries who outscore the United States on these test continue to come and observe classes. The reason is because the United States is home to creativity and innovation. Last year at Minarets we had visitors from China and Singapore. This is what we must continue to do to be competitive and successful. The world has changed and education must continue to evolve to ensure that our students are prepared for the rapidly changing global economy. That does not mean that every student will become an inventor or a scientist. It means that our children will have the skills to work in a variety of fields as the job market changes.

The shift is not easy. Students who have grown up in a system where multiple choice tests rather than skills based assessments determine their success level. That is why we see students getting frustrated when teachers challenge them to find an answer using through inquiry. Students perception of learning is linked to memorization more than creation. Students often feel like they are not "learning" when the teacher is not lecturing but rather moving throughout the classroom as a guide, while the students are producing. Students also run into difficulties transitioning to digital learning at first, because rather than the book guiding their learning, they are challenged to think outside the textbook. However, this shift is happening and it will prove to be more relevant to the world around our students.

Think about your experience in the work world. Ultimately, most of us work in jobs where we were forced to learn on the job. There was no textbook, lecture, or multiple choice test that would have prepared us for it. This is another reason why students need to learn by doing and thinking without being given the answer right away. This gives them a learn on the job mentality and will better prepare them to take that approach in the workplace.

The truth is that there will always be core educational practices that will not change over time. A good teacher could teach with a stick and a rock. We cannot throw out core educational practices for trends . We still need to be rigorous, we still need assessments to measure growth, we still need to teach students how to read and write proficiently, and we still need teachers to be leaders in the classroom. However, teachers and schools must adapt to the world around them by asking the students to be critical thinkers and produce. The world is changing and education must change with it to ensure the success of our students. Leading is Teaching.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Providing Rigor Through Community Service

Schools and students have been active participants in communities since they first began. School is a place in which most families are connected and a place that represents the future of the community in which they are located. So the idea of schools teaching community service is nothing new in the education world. However, using technology to approach real world issues and collaboratively working as a class to solve them is a foreign concept in many classrooms.
 I believe that right now is the perfect time for these two worlds to collide. We are introducing technology into classrooms at an ever increasing rate and the ability to communicate, organize, promote, and research is becoming ridiculously easy. However, teachers and administrators are facing the temptation to do what they have always done, just in digital format. We cannot allow that to happen if we are truly going to prepare our students for the modern world they face.
Two education movements burgeoning right now that will help provide a framework for teachers are challenge based learning and inquiry based learning. Challenge Based Learning is "an engaging multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning that encourages learners to leverage the technology they use in their daily lives to solve real-world problems (challengebasedlearning.org)". Inquiry Based Learning involves project creation through collaboration, raising question, understanding real world problems, and developing the discipline to work through failures to achieve success. These are ways of teaching that could truly impact the success of our students and communities.
If you look at the US economy and compare it to the global economy, there are some trends that need to be observed by American schools. Jobs that were traditionally available to high school graduates or in some cased even college graduates are being outsourced or replaced by technology. This does not mean the death of the job market. It just means that jobs are changing and we need to change the way we prepare students.
We are preparing students for jobs that don't exist yet. Our students will have multiple careers by the the time they "retire." So our focus should be on skills rather than just on memorizing content. We need to teach them to present, collaborate, solve problems, find multiple solutions, create a digital portfolio, and be adaptable. None of that is taught through memorization of content. Lets face it, memorization and multiple choice is not going to teach our kids to acquire these skills in the immediate future.
So how can we tie the value of the traditional school role in the community with these new ideas? I believe there is an easy connection through service learning. If we want to teach students to solve problems, collaborate, think critically, and present, we need look no further than our own communities. We can create real world education experiences through our local veterans groups, charity associations, churches, sports organizations, and businesses. If there is a high poverty rate in a community, what better place to start solving the problem than in our academic institutions? This will provide students with rigorous curriculum while also giving them a chance to make a difference.
Students can become leaders in movements that they are passionate about while participating in projects that teach them to write, present, research, communicate and collaborate. This type of real world teaching will make a big impact in more ways than one. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Making the Grade?

Lately I have been reading "Drive" by Daniel Pink. The book focuses on what motivates people and how this has an effect on how productive they are. The automatic assumption is that people who have more money as an incentive, will be more productive. In other words, if you offer someone a bonus to be more productive, they will in turn yield higher results. This seems logical and we can probably cite many cases where this is true. However, research show that there is one missing ingredient here: passion for the job and feeling like what you are doing is important. Without these, studies show that people are less productive even when given a financial incentive.

One of the best examples that Pink talks about in his book is Wikipedia. Microsoft spent an exuberant amount of money, time, and resources developing "Encarta," their digital encyclopedia. They had experts in all fields contribute and had paid programmers working tirelessly to perfect it. However, just when it seemed that Encarta would "hit its stride" along came something called Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a site that is home to information on any topic imaginable from sports to trees. Is is free to the public and the people who write each page do not get compensated. In 1995, if you told someone that the popularity and effectiveness of Wikipedia would dismantle "Encarta"and help start the free sharing revolution that has happened today, they would not believe you. The same goes for the many websites and programs that followed in its footsteps.

This example is the perfect connection to the concept that people must be intrinsically motivated by what they are doing, to operate at their full potential. To find companies that are using this research to improve their production, you need look no further than Google. Daniel Pink talks about this in "Drive." Google gave its employees what they call "20% time." This was a time period where they are able stop working on day to day projects and focus on projects that are creatively inspiring to them and could be used by the company. In other words, its a time for employees to be passionate and explore their creative side, while potentially helping the company through invention. And it did. This was the birthplace of gmail and google maps, among many others. Google employees felt like what they were doing was meaningful, so they were more productive as a result.

So how does this relate to our students and teachers? Well the connection is easy. We have all been in classrooms whether it be as a student or a teacher. Likewise, we have all seen the variety of students that sit in each class. So we know that not all students are motivated by the grade. You can have two kids who respond completely different to an F. One student may nearly pass out for fear of their parent's reaction, while the other will think nothing of it. As teachers and schools, we must realize this and in the words of Mike Niehoff, "transcend the grade."

We need to provide opportunities for our students to be creative and use their talents. We need our advanced students to work to their own high set of standards rather than just enough to get the A grade. We need students to have the kind of relationship with their teacher that makes them strive to make the teacher proud. We need a classroom environment where students are motivated to be successful despite the letter on their report card. We need kids to feel that what they are doing is relevant and meaningful. This is sometimes a very difficult task, but one we must pursue. I can look at students at our school and point out concrete evidence of success without knowing their current GPA. That doesn't mean that GPA doesn't matter. In fact GPA should be taken seriously by all teachers and students. It just means that GPA isn't the only thing that matters.

Rigor should never be compromised. In my opinion, ideas like 20% time, make a rigorous environment more likely. If we teach kids to work hard for an A, some will do that. If we teach kids to work hard and find meaning in life, that will stick with them for a lifetime. Leading is Teaching.

“Greatness and nearsightedness are incompatible. Meaningful achievement depends on lifting one's sights and pushing toward the horizon.”
-Daniel Pink

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Everything I Know I Learned From My Mother

As I prepare to embark on the new school year I feel it is important to remind myself why I am passionate about education. Not only that, but I should remember the roots of my passion. With that being said, I don't have to look any further than my mother.
My mom has been an early education phenomenon for over thirty years. She has poured her heart and soul into the hundreds of kids that have passed through her doors. One of those students was me. So the question is, what did I learn from being a teacher's kid, that has impacted my career in education? Well my initial response would be, what haven't I learned from my mom that has impacted my career as an educator? But for the sake of this blog, I will narrow it down to three.

1) Being an Educator is not a job, it is a lifestyle. I could always find my mom reading the latest research on brain development or speech therapy. I remember her planning through the summer and having conversations with tons of people about what they can do at home to further their child's learning. She always had time for family but she never turned off teaching mode because that's just who she is.

2) Each child is unique and it is our job to meet them where they are. Many teachers struggle with students and say, "they should know this." My mom was never like that. She had kids who were very advanced in the same room as students who didn't speak yet. It didn't matter because she always focused on meeting the students where they were and taking them as far as she could.

3) There are good days and bad, but if your students know that you care about them, learning will always prevail. My mom had some pretty rough stories from her years in the classroom. But she never showed any signs of giving up. No matter how bad the home life was, or how angry the child was, she loved them. That stuck with me so much so that I often find myself choking up when talking about my students.

I say all this as if she were finished but the truth is she is still teaching and working to perfect her craft everyday. I look at kids who graduate from the high school and smile because I know that some of those same students started with her.
So as the year starts, remember those three lessons I learned from mom. Because at the end of the day, we work to improve the lives of kids. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Data and Assessment

Benchmarks, Data, Standards, Teacher Observations. Somewhere along the way these terms have been related to the death of creativity and independence in the teaching profession. Although we are professionals, we also like to think of ourselves as artists in a way. After all, isn't the "art of teaching" the definition of pedagogy? When we think of good teachers, we can easily consider them artists or entertainers in their own right. The teachers I remember most were charismatic, funny, exciting, and generally enthused about their line of work. So the question is, in the age of high stakes testing and standards based instruction, can we still be artists while maintaining professional practices in the classroom? I believe the answer is yes.

Now think of any professional that is considerably "high profile." For the sake of brevity lets just examine surgeons, lawyers, and professional athletes. Now, in all three of these careers one could easily come to the conclusion that there have to be some inherent characteristics for a person to be successful in each specific career. There is no arguing that you can't be a professional athlete without some key ingredients. I would say that successful teachers also match that description. Not everyone will be a successful classroom teacher in their life's calling. However, talent alone is not what makes surgeons, lawyers, athletes or teachers successful. There is a lot of practice, data review, professional development, and collaboration that goes along with success in these careers.

Does a surgeon not consult other surgeons in his field when he or she is confronted with a new experience? Does a professional athlete not review film to see how he or she can improve? Does a lawyer (please release your mind of stereotypes) not look at precedence from other cases before standing in front of the judge? I believe we all know the answers to these questions. That brings me to how this relates to teachers.

As educators we are professionals who have a clear goal of providing a quality education to all students who walk through that door. Some can argue that this is THE most important profession because it directly relates to the future of our planet. This is why it is so important for us to understand that in order to perform at the highest level, we need to hold true to professional practices. Notice that I did not say we have to because it is mandated by the state or federal government. We need to evaluate, research, and collaborate on a regular basis to make our schools more successful.

In everything that we do we should be able to show proof of effectiveness and be able to determine strengths and weaknesses. This is just as true for  project based learning. We should be given feedback from teacher observations. We should have some sort of benchmark regularly to see if we are growing and if we are effective. We should have guidelines of what we are teaching and I am not necessarily talking about state standards. This will not destroy "the art of teaching" as we know it. Instead, it will improve our ability to be true artists.

As this year is ready to begin, keep in mind that it is not against our creative nature to embrace the aforementioned practices. We need to balance our professional practices with our artistic practices. So when your administrator or department chair is pushing for benchmarks and data, make sure that you let them know that you will not compromise your art, but you will be accountable through professional practices. Because in the end, our sole objective is to provide our kids with an excellent education. Leading is Teaching.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

New Beginnings

As I cleaned out my classroom and moved my items into a tiny office, the memories of teaching hit me. All of those moments in class that have shaped me as an adult more than my students will ever know. The moments when students inspired me, when they made me crack up, and even when they made me angry. All of those moments are what mold educators into the strange, but passionate people they are. Here we are working so hard to positively influence students and set them up for a successful tomorrow, all the while being impacted by them just as much as they are by us.

In many ways it will be difficult for me to move on from such a great experience. It is hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I won't have that everyday face to face with the same group of kids over time. Now, my replacement will have all of those opportunities to connect on a deep level with each student that passes through his door. However, as sad as it makes me to leave that chapter of my career behind, I have to look at what makes my new opportunity so exciting.

All of that work in establishing my positive classroom environment will be applied towards establishing a collaborative environment for my teachers and an inspiring atmosphere for the student body. All of that work planning the projects my students would create will now be dedicated to supporting my staff in becoming the best teachers that they can be. All of that work looking for resources and funds for projects in my class will now be applied towards providing more opportunities school wide for all of the students.  All of the personal connections with students will be applied to the whole student body whether it be through the teachers or myself.

When I think about my new role in these terms, I am thrilled to take on the challenge. I want to treat every student just like the student who I connected with so well in the classroom. I will put my full energy into doing what is best for kids and working towards providing seemingly impossible opportunities for students and staff. Because in the end, the passion that makes good teachers, also makes good leaders. Leading is teaching.