Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Danger of Hoodies

Last week I mentioned the Q-Team at Chaney High School in Youngstown and how they had worked to revise their school's dress code to remove some of the arbitrary "Because the grown-ups say so" elements that result in an inevitable tug of war and loss of instructional time. The number of students who miss significant chunks of learning has dropped dramatically due to this change. The students went about the effort appropriately--conducting research, making presentations to the school board, self-monitoring, etc.

There remain two items of clothing the board has said are non-negotiable: Hoodies and ripped jeans. I am going to leave aside the ripped jean argument. As long as all relevant parts are adequately covered, this seems like just another we-don't-share-your-taste-in-clothes stance on the part of grown ups. A rule just to have a rule so we have a handle to control that pesky adolescent rebellion thing. I remember a young lady in another school with the same policy telling me: "I don't get it. I can't wear jeans that show a sliver of my knee, but when we switch to summer dress code and we are allowed to wear shorts, I can show my whole leg." I had to admit I didn't get it either.

When I asked why hoodies were banned, the students first pointed out that hoodies with the school logo were available for sale in the school bookstore, but that they were not allowed to wear them in school. You don't need a teenager's nose for hypocrisy to sniff that one out. But then they said, the board says, they are dangerous.

I fell for it at first. I could imagine one student grabbing another student's hood and the resulting neck injury. After all, they have even banned horse collar tackles in the NFL. But when I said, "That makes sense." A student, and then another, and then another, set me straight:

"Then they should ban scarves."
"And hijabs."
"And all shirts!"

Of course. Hoodies don't hurt people; people do. If one student wants to hurt another student, they don't need a hooded sweatshirt to do it. The students further pointed out that they have been tracking dress code violations all year as a part of their project and, although their have been 30 violations involving hoodies, there have been zero hoodie pulling incidents. The proof of the danger would be in the pulling, but it seems not to happen. What could be more tempting to tug on than a rare hoodie?

The students get that the hood on a hoodie cannot be worn up while in school. They are arguing that the ban seems arbitrary and that for many students a hoodie is the warmest article of clothing for those in-between temperatures. I know I frequently wear one for just that purpose. So there we are back at "Because we say so."

Taking seriously Student Voice requires an openness that not every school, school administrator, or school board can get to yet. The more we move away from command and control and towards trust and responsibility, the greater will be the learning partnership between us and our students. They don't want to rebel, they just want to be heard. They want to be safe, and they also want to be warm.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Bring the Pizza

Yesterday we were working with a group of amazing Q-Team students at Chaney High School in Youngstown, Ohio. These students have already cooked up a number of school level changes that have had a huge impact on their learning. One example is a dress code change that has reduced the silly friction that can be the battle over arbitrary dress code violations and resulted in increased instructional time for all students. While students (as teenagers ever will) continue to stretch the boundaries of the dress code, the overall improvement has had benefits for both students and teachers.

The team turned its attention toward classroom engagement as they reviewed a building aggregate of iKnow My Class survey results. Small groups reviewed the results, looking for recommendations they might make to their teachers. As we debriefed, several students suggested that their teachers needed to do more to motivate students to learn. They were essentially asking that their teacher get better at pep talking them into wanting to learn. I asked: "What motivates you to eat? Why do you go looking for food?" The students all responded: "Hunger." I offered the following:

I think motivation, like hunger, comes from the inside. The only real motivation is self-motivation. You have to want to learn, want to be successful in school. Here is what a teacher can do: What happens if I start talking about pizza...really good pizza...with stringy mozzarella cheese and amazing
sauce....what happens? Maybe you start to realize you are hungry, when just a minute ago you didn't realize you were. I can do things and say things to make your hunger grow. Have you ever just eaten and you watch one of those cooking shows? How can I be full and still feel hungry??

I think what effective teachers do is talk about pizza. Better still they bring in pizza and have the aroma fill their classrooms. Hunger comes from inside, just as the desire to learn does. But teachers have a responsibility to develop lessons that help students realize just how hungry, how curious they really are. Real world relevance can do that. Connecting learning to students' aspirations can do that. Project-based approaches can do that. There are many kinds of pizza!

I suggested to the Q-Team at Chaney to not ask their teachers to motivate them, but to work with them to bring more pizza into their classroom.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Student Voice: Following Up Dr. Q's Webinar

Last week we had a wonderful webinar led by Dr. Quaglia who was broadcasting from Dubai!  Time (and a technology glitch) did not allow for him to address questions that were being asked in the stream, so after some discussion with him I thought we would address them here. Dr. Q will be doing these webinars monthly; check for specific dates.

What does voice actually entail?

On page xiv of Student Voice: the Instrument of Change (Corwin 2014), we define student voice “as occurring when students are meaningfully engaged in decision making and improvement-related processes in their schools.” These “processes” range from the classroom right up through school-wide decisions and even into district level concerns. Student voice for us is ensuring that students have a seat at the table where meaningful decisions are made. This goes beyond merely listening to students through surveys and focus groups (though those are necessary starting points). Student voice involves students in decision-making. Examples range from providing student with choices of what to study in the classroom and inviting students to teach to having students on teacher and administrator hiring teams. What we seek through student voice is a realization of the idea that students are not a school’s clients or customers, but rather their partners.

What are the merits of student voice?

There are many merits of student voice, but let’s start with the fact that students who report having a voice in school are 7x more likely to also report being academically motivated. Simply providing students with agency and a measure of control over their experiences in school has this dramatic seven-fold effect. If you know something else that has as great or better effect, do that instead! Regularly when we talk to students in focus groups having a say in what happens to them—either by getting to select books, helping make the latest dress code decision, being part of peer mediation or peer tutoring—is highly motivating to them.

At the classroom level it seems true enough that you can’t teach someone if you don’t know them. The entire trend toward personalized education requires student voice. Until students share with us their hopes and dreams, their background knowledge, a sense of their own learning capacities, it is difficult to teach in anything other than a one-size-fits-all, teach-to-the-middle approach. Competency Based Education (CBE) also requires Student Voice. A full spectrum picture of competency includes not only test performance, but also strategies like individual task demonstration along the way and portfolios as summative evaluation of accumulated learning. Both of these can be considered forms of student voice.

At the school level, students’ unique perspective on school policies, norms, customs, and practices enable an adult-student partnership to solve problems and devise new solutions far more readily than an adults-only approach. Examples of this range from suspension policies that make little sense to students and actually promote greater ISS over time to concerns about student tardiness to zero tolerance homework policies that simply punish rather than teach.

What does student voice look like in practice?

What does a genuine partnership look like? If our experience is any indication, it does not mean one partner always gets their way. In a partnership, there is a genuine dialogue, a give and take that frequently results in “a third way”—a new idea that neither partner imagined before the dialogue. A kind of win-win.  Questions and challenges are seen as respectful rather than a defiance of adult authority or problem with student opinion.

Concretely, a classroom enlivened by student voice is abuzz with activity. Students are teaching. Students are electing to be at this or that station. Students are in small groups discussing. Students are working on projects. They are self assessing. They are peer assessing. Teachers are facilitating, not simply delivering instruction. And above all teachers are learning.

At the school level, students are part of Building Leadership Teams, Teacher Based Teams, Department Meetings, and “Staff” Meetings (renamed Learning Community Meetings). There are Parent-Teacher-Student meetings. Report cards, primarily narrative and performance-based, include Student Voice and student self-assessment.

For all levels of putting student voice into practice, available technologies are used as amplifiers. Teachers, Administrators, and even central office leaders access student voice regularly through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media resources.

How can a teacher get started with adding student voice in a lesson, unit, etc.?

First steps include starting class with questions (what do you know about this already?), choice within curriculum (should we do this set of exercises or these others?), greater collaboration within lessons (using a variety of organizing strategies), and exit slips (what did you think of today’s learning activity?). To really go for student voice administer iKnowMyClass!

Are there criteria used to help increase the amount of student voice in a classroom or building? 

A short, not-exhaustive checklist of criteria would include:

  •   A regular habit of student surveys that were meaningfully used and followed up with action steps
  •   A habit of student focus groups
  •   Regular student choice within the curriculum
  •   Student self assessment
  •   Student feedback and input into learning environment and experiences
  •   Students interests drive learning
  •   Student help develop classroom and school rules
  •   Students on staff hiring committees
  •   Students on administrator hiring committees
  •   Students participating in staff meetings
  •   Students participating in department meetings
  •   Students participating on building leadership teams

How can we get teachers to differentiate between student voice and just giving students' choice?

Student choice is one of many ways of doing student voice. The latter is a much broader category and is as much a way of being as it is about technique.  As with many of the practices suggested above, student choice has a role to play, but is by no the only option. One way to help teachers see the difference is to point out this distinction and provide other suggestions, besides “choices”, to fill out the picture.  Would you want your significant other or partner only to give you choices? Or would you rather that your partnership was one of mutual voice?

How can we change staff attitudes towards aspirations?

We have talked to literally hundreds of educators in the course of our work. When we ask questions about core values or professional missions or why people became educators, nearly everyone says the same thing. Their answers are always about supporting students’ aspirations and frequently echo the 8 Conditions and the 3 Guiding Principles. No teacher we have ever talked to said they became an educator to help a school make AYP every year. Nor has anyone said their mission as an educator was to raise standardized test scores as high as possible.

The fact of the matter is we need to return our school staff to the attitudes that brought them and keep in the profession in the first place. When we set students’ aspirations as the primary goal of our efforts as a school—and not mere academic outcomes, they will rejoice! By supporting student aspirations, we are supporting staff aspirations as well.

What are some best practices for cultivating and honoring teacher voice?

A great first step is to have meaningful staff meetings. When a principal chooses to memo the memo-able to free up time for her staff to have genuine conversations about their concerns as professional educators working in a particular school, staff begin to thrive in a much more collegial environment. Administrators also need to end the practice of asking their staff for input to a decision that has already been made so that they can check the box “Asked staff.” This practice rarely fools anyone and is experienced by teachers as an affront. Having said that, the opportunity to provide meaningful input to decisions that all staff recognize are the principal’s to make (they don’t want your job) in a culture of transparency (here is why I made a different decision) is always welcome.

Professional Development could also benefit from a major overhaul starting with asking teachers about their learning needs and then working to meet those needs. We need to stop the pro-forma expectation that a professional educators must do X hours of PD regardless of their content area or expertise. We have heard far too often about ELA teachers sitting in on Math PD so that they could “get their hours.”

Finally, take the notion of teacher leadership seriously. Teachers are professionals. They are experts. Administrators do not need to know everything. Enlist teachers in their areas of expertise. One effective way to do this is to create mentoring programs as well as relying on internal experts for professional development. Best practices also include using surveys and focus groups.

To diminish the fear of going down this road, the administration must develop trust. This can only be done over time and by action—words count for a lot less. Punitive practices (e.g., reassignments within a building or to other buildings, or handing out the short straw when it comes to classroom assignments, etc.) must be abolished. Even the perception that this is happening (if it is not in fact happening) must be addressed head on with transparency and clear explanation.

In the positive column, have lunch with teachers and guide professional conversations.  Do not settle for an “Open Door Policy” as your strategy for listening to your staff. If no one walks through the door (or only the squeaky wheel does) there is not much to listen to. Rather seek out teacher input as a regular habit. Create a pattern of teacher voice and design systems (if they do not already exist) such as the type of staff meeting referenced above.

How to make the 8 conditions grounded and applicable to the classroom/instruction?

Not to do a commercial but this is what Student Voice: the Instrument of Change is all about! Short of reading the book there are lots of ideas at Check out the archives of our Aspirations in Action newsletter.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Confidence to Set Sail

I have always taken great former-English-major satisfaction in the fact that the final moment of our students' academic careers--at both the high school and post-secondary levels--is called "Commencement."  As most people know, "Commencement" means "Beginning." Though many students, and their parents, no doubt see graduation as an ending, paradoxically it is a time of starting, of launching, of embarking. The ceremony is meant to raise the sails, not drop anchor. No doubt many Commencement speeches make this point.

QISA's 8th Condition is Confidence to Take Action. It is associated with the Guiding Principle of Purpose. Our Framework connects the notion of a young person's belief that they can be successful with the level of intention, commitment, and concern for others that marks a life lived with Purpose. But QISA's survey results have consistently revealed a troubling gap: While 93% of students believe they can be successful, just 71% of students believe they can make a difference in this world. This means there are a significant number of students who see no connection between their own success and a positive impact for others. So what is this confidence a confidence in or for? If students feel confident in their sailing forth, where do they think they are headed if not to the world's betterment?

There may be a clue in another Confidence to Take Action indicator: On average 7 out of 10 (69%) 6th-12th graders agree with the statement "School is preparing me well for my future", but only 56% of high school seniors agree. Apparently the longer students are in school, the less they feel they are being prepared for their future--school being a merely academic set of exercises that students hope end upon graduation. Consider: Service Learning notwithstanding, how does a more or less traditional education (learning in disciplined silos, desks in rows, etc.) prepare a student not just to be confident, but to act. Not just to sit down and pay attention, but to get up and do something. In fact to get up and change something for the better. Perhaps some students see no connection between their success and the world being improved because making a difference in the world requires action, not just confidence. And while school has given them confidence, it has definitely not given them permission to be disruptive.

Dreaming is great, it provides students with a destination. And confidence can be a self-generated wind, propelling students toward their goals. But a destination and a strong wind are useless, unless one undertakes the hard work of raising the sails. Action is required to commence with the world's improvement. If we have not taught that this year, how will we start doing it next year?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

I Get No Respect

Those of us of a certain generation remember the signature line of the stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield: "I tell ya, I get no respect." He would tell story after story of how he got no respect from anyone. My favorite was when he explained that his parents tied a pork chop around his neck so the dog would play with him. No respect.

The other day in a focus group, I could swear I saw a teacher tug at a red tie when he said, "I get no respect." He was talking about how students in his building did not respect him or other adults. He went on to complain about his students' families and to wax on about the golden days when his father would deal with disrespect with a firm hand. He concluded with, "I tell ya, I don't give a kid respect until I get respect. My respect needs to be earned." (Ok...maybe he didn't say "I tell ya" but the rest is accurate.

I have written about this previously, but it is worth repeating because it keeps repeating itself.

In the absolutely reciprocal relationship that is respect between a teacher and a student - I respect you, if you respect me - the adult has to go first. When adults tell me that they will show a student respect when a student shows them respect, I always think they will be waiting a long time. Maybe it's my age, but at 50+ I am not waiting around for some 13 year-old (I have neckties that are older) to respect me before I show them the respect I believe is due to all human beings. I refuse to let anyone's incomplete upbringing negate the wonderful job I believe my parents did with mine. Even students in focus groups, when this topic comes up, get it that the adult has to start.

The fact of the matter is, there is no way to disrespectfully teach someone who is disrespectful to respect you. The only way to teach respect, to get another person who is being disrespectful to respect you, is to respect them in spite of their disrespect. It turns out that when someone treats you respectfully, even if you disrespect them, they come to learn what real respect is and to then treat you with respect. Teacher respect for students must be a constant even in the face of variable respect from students.

If you are a teacher trying the Wait-to-Get-Respect-Before-Giving-It strategy with students, you might want to consider stand-up comedy instead.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Whenever something like this happens, I am mindful of educators I have met who do not think Fun & Excitement has a role to play in academic pursuits. That somehow intellectual seriousness and emotional engagement are incompatible. That you can either be learning or having fun, but not both.

I am not talking about a "straw man"--some hypothetical extreme I am setting up to make a point. I have met educators who insist that the two need to be separate if students are to learn. A principal once told me she thought we did students a disservice if we did not occasionally bore them. "Life is not all fun and games, you know?"

I submit that the successful landing of Rosetta--and the countless other times we have seen a group of serious-minded people throw their hands up ecstatically at achieving a goal--indicates exactly the opposite. What drives people in a years-long and intellectually challenging serious pursuit is not mere science or history or language or mathematics; it is passion. Dare I say, love.

Here's to the men and women who dreamed of landing a space probe on a planet and made it happen. Here's to dreaming and doing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Real Common Core?

Michelle Harvin at EdTechTimes recently wrote about a Harvard Study by Dr. Hunter Gehlback  (whom I have had the pleasure of meeting) which found that when teachers and students discover interests they have in common, they do better academically. The article, Study Finds Social Connectedness in Classrooms Improves Grades, notes that, after a get-to-know-you survey, "the research team gathered the grades at the end of the first quarter and found that when teachers received feedback about being similar to their students, the students earned higher grades." The effect was most pronounced for Black and Latino students.

QISA research thoroughly supports this finding. QISA studies show that when students experience the support of teachers, they are 8 times more likely to be academically motivated than those who do not feel similarly supported.  That academic motivation can inevitably translate into better academic performance. Actually for us, academic motivation, is a better metric. Lots can happen to produce improved academic performance. Cramming, improving test taking skills, having a teacher teach to the test, even cheating, are all ways to improve academic achievement. For my own children, I would want their improved academic performance to emerge from academic motivation and mastery.

The key to creating life-long learners is in learners wanting to learn. And absolutely wanting to learn develops when your teachers want to learn something about you. We hear all the time in focus groups that students work harder, study more for, pay attention to teachers who they believe care about them as a person and not just as a student. The real "common core" turns out to be, not the object matter we want students to learn (i.e., the academic disciplines), but our common bond as persons and as learners. That's at the core!