Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Enthusiasm is Contagious...

 and so is the lack of it. So goes an unattributed quote.

Our trend data says that the youngest students start out very excited about school, build to a fever of enthusiasm in the fifth grade, and in middle school start a slow slide into the near coma of the latter high school years. I have observed as much in the field:  First graders flush with making their first paper plate clock. Fifth graders fighting over who describes their science project first. Sophomores more pumped about the softball game after school than the prerequisite of being in school. And seniors slumping into a fifth row seat, cheek to hand, elbow to desktop, eyes half lidded. An exaggeration?  Not as long as every kindergartner, over the anxieties of September, is excited to go to school in October and one junior is considering whether they should just cut class or finally quit coming at all.

I have the good fortune of having a wide age range of friends and family.  This year alone I know and regularly communicate with a kindergartner, a second grader, a third grader, a fifth grader, a seventh grader, and a high school senior. These particular kids don't fit the pattern and I think I have a diagnosis and, maybe, a prescription. Undoubtedly someone's second opinion will be that it is parents or socioeconomic status, but I don't think so. The fifth and seventh grader suffer school, dance when there is a day off, and regularly tell me that school is boring and that they hate homework. The K, 2, and 3 students all enjoy school (that's normal) and so does the senior (that's not so much).

I think it's choice.  As in options. As in I get to decide. Enthusiasm, evidently, is a symptom of having a say. The K and 2 kids talk about "stations" and picking assignments from red boxes or blue boxes or green boxes.  The third grader selects from among chapter books and chooses writing topics earnestly explaining why she selected this theme over three others.  The senior has a schedule filled with electives and (this one lives with me) does homework the way some students do texting. Meanwhile, the fifth and seventh grader talk about getting ready for tests and doing the same math problem over and over with different numbers and only because I ask, "How's school?"  My friends on either end of the K-12 continuum still are eager to talk to me about school.  The two in the middle, after politely answering my question, have already switched to talking about Halloween. Maybe because they get to choose their costume.

If part of your enthusiasm as an educator comes from choices you get to make about curriculum and instruction, what are you currently doing to spread the contagion by way of choices for students? 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Teacher Leaders

One of the lessons in Dr. Quaglia's Lessons Learned from an Aspirations Advocate is: "Administrators Hold the Key, But the Staff Hold Everything Else." When we work in schools we take a student-centered, teacher-driven, administrator-supported approach. Trying to improve a school's climate and culture must be driven by teachers.  The focus can, indeed must, be on the students.  And administrators will have a lot to say regarding scheduling meetings, logistics, feasibility, relationship to other projects and constituencies (parents, board, etc.). But without question, meaningful and sustainable change must be teacher led. An article in the New York Times point out that teachers doing double duty as administrators may be a growing trend.  Don't tell that to our friends in the UK.

One of the interesting things about our work across the pond has always been the effectiveness with which they implement initiatives. One could argue that some schools implement too many new programs and get caught up in a flavor-of-the-year approach. But one cannot argue with how effectively they implement. I put this down to teacher-leaders. Or rather leaders who are teachers. The system over there does not have a clear distinction between leadership and teachers. Most head-teachers, our equivalent of principals, have at least one teaching responsibility.  And the deputy head-teachers (our assistant principals) all have two or more teaching responsibilities.

As in the Times article, I am a bit on the fence about the whole thing. One the one hand, given the inevitable fact of student turn over and the not-inevitable-but-statistically-probable rate of administrator turn over, having teachers lead makes sense. In order for anything to be sustainable, those working in a school for 5, 10, 15, 20 years or more and likely to continue for as long must take the lead. On the other hand, school administration has become an increasingly specialized field. Even the promoted classroom teacher is having a hard time developing the required skill set. The skill set of a job that has become part politics, part CEO, part operations manager, part counselor, and part instructional leadership is different than the skill set of facilitating classroom instruction.  Although perhaps that argues for coming down on the teacher-leader side of the fence. Perhaps a team approach to leadership has a better chance of assembling the skill set than our one school, one principal approach. Why not experiment in your school this year by having a group of teachers really take on something big? That's how we do Aspirations.

Friday, September 3, 2010


One of the 8 Conditions that Make a Difference--those dimensions of school life that our research and practice tell us affect a young person's ability to dream and set goals for the future while being inspired in the present to reach them--is Heroes. Many students tell us that second only to their parents, teachers are their Heroes. Some teachers balk at this.  Oh well. 

It's not really a teacher's choice whether or not to be a Hero.  You don't get to walk up to the 7th grader who is just starting your class and say, "I am going to be your  Hero this year!" And you don't get to turn your back to that student and say, "I am not going to be your Hero this year." Kids choose teachers as their Heroes. If you are a teacher, you get to decide whether you will be a good Hero or a bad Hero, but not whether or not you will be one.

Don't take my word for it.  Today's Boston Globe has a great article pointing this out. So if you are an educator, what's your plan for earning at least one fanfare every day this year? Download a "tada" ring tone and make a commitment to deserve to play it when you leave school each day. Happy Heroing!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Here We Go Again

A friend of mine said the other day, "I blinked and missed August." The whole summer seemed to pass by that swiftly and my eyes were wide open.  I have been on hiatus from the blog not because this summer was a time of half-lidded leisure. Rather it was as blindingly busy as it ever is during the school year. I even skipped a traditional summer's week off, using the time I had set aside to work on a research article instead. Being in the education profession my whole adult life (and a student up until then), I had been programmed to think summers were slower, lighter, more casual. For the past several years that has not been true. But this was the first summer I did not expect it to be slower. So, for once, I was not unpleasantly surprised.

I know administrators and teachers who feel the same way. Labor Day is no longer the threshold between the cabana and classroom. This summer I facilitated three professional development sessions for the schools we work in. Many schools have already started and are in full swing.  We may not be going to school year round yet, as many argue we should, but there is a war of attrition that the advocates of summers off (are there any that are not students?) are losing.  So here is wishing you the best as you start another school year that never actually ended. "Let's be careful out there."