Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Olympics 2

Another thing that has caught my attention this Olympics is the web of support around the athletes.  The reflection began while I was watching curling and the announcer mentioned that the Great Britain curling team, comprised of 4 people, has a support staff of 20. Twenty! I don't know that much about curling, but there must be a lot to take care of.  The stones, the brooms, the special shoes.

For every athlete and for every team, there are parents and numerous family and friends and coaches and trainers and equipment managers and fans. Just one or a few people stand on the podium while they play the national anthem, but you have to believe that there is a chorus singing back-up somewhere out of camera range. Once again we come across the foundational conditions of Belonging and Heroes

If we are going to inspire our students to aspirational greatness, they will need the same kind of full on support structure.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Olympic Aspirations

I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Winter Olympics the past several days.  Of course, time spent watching the Olympics is time not spent blogging.  Sunday's US v. Canada hockey game was a dazzling display of everything that is great about hockey--speed, stick handling, incredible goal tending.  I found myself wishing I was watching amateurs rather than NHL players taking some time "off," but even so this was the sport at its pinnacle.

Last night's ice dancing program was no less mesmerizing as couple after couple skated beyond personal bests, leaving it all out there on the ice.  Years of preparation, hours upon hours of work.  Countless bruises and set backs--learning experiences all.  Event after event has revealed the artistry, skill, creativity, and unquestionable perseverance of each and every athlete.

Since this is not a sports blog you are wondering "Where's the beef?"

Seemingly out of nowhere my beef is with the term "Adequate Yearly Progress." I couldn't help sitting there, in awe at the human capacity for greatness, in amazement at the very idea of being an Olympian, and in equal astonishment fume, "How did we come up with so mediocre a goal as 'Adequate Yearly Progress'?" Does anyone believe Apolo Ohno (pictured above) even has the word "adequate" in his vocabulary? Clearly, I am not saying every one can have Olympic aspirations.  I am saying that every one's aspirations should be olympic [To any former teachers reading this: I know it's supposed to be capitalized, but I am taking poetic license to make a point.]

Why have we set our students' sights to "adequate"? Why not instead find out what each one is most passionate about, willing to put the maximum available effort into, and committed to the point of being heedless of bruising about, and then support them as they relentlessly go after it?  Why not have gold medal aspirations in nursing, marketing, graphic design, culinary, teaching, school administration?  Why not have students name their dream and then inspire them to go for it?

Maybe the malaise in American education right now is not budgetary or philosophical.  Maybe students are struggling because we tell them we will settle for "adequate," when inside each one knows he or she has olympian potential.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Blizzard

Recently I heard a seasoned superintendent say he was ready to raise the white flag.  He had spent a full weekend at the office away from his family in order to dig out from under the weekly blizzard. By 11 am Monday, his desk was again a foot deep in the white stuff. I have written previously about how many principals seem similarly snowed under--some of it administrivia, much of it critical, all of it needing to be shoveled through yesterday. Unlike the other white stuff, this kind does not melt. I have little doubt that many administrators would like to burn much of it.

One superintendent at one desk in one district one winter Monday may not be reason to wonder if there is a paperwork version of "Snowmageddon" on the educational system horizon. On the other hand, this guy is one of the tough ones. Notoriously driven. Perhaps even an undiagnosed workaholic. The white flag?

Is anyone tracking this accumulating effect? Eight years ago, the federal government precipitated NCLB on our country. When it hit the ground in classrooms, students became covered in worksheets, test prep, and optical mark paper. It took a few years, but students began reporting the icy effect of that on their connection to school, their engagement, and their sense of the purpose of school. About five or six years ago, teachers started to tell us they were overwhelmed with their workload. That they were drifting away from real learning and depth of understanding in order to plow through curriculum. "Accountabilty" had the same affect as "sleet and snow predicted." About three years ago, I started to notice that principals were neck deep in district and state mandated files, faxes, and forms.  Now a hard working, bring-it-on district deputy is half seriously saying it might be time to put down the shovel and let the flakes have their way.  Not retire; just stop battling the elements.

This forecast might be easier to make than the weather: When Race to the Top hits for real, state DOE's will be buried in accountability and regulation. It is only a matter of time before the avalanche overtakes the Capitol itself. There is a solution. It involves attention to changing school climate as a way to improve students' aspirations. School systems and those who work in them will inevitably have "snow days." Whether they cause a complete shut down of students, staff, and administrators is not inevitable.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fractured and Flat

Here's another in the category of We-Are-Living-In-A-Different-World-Than-When-Schools-Were-Invented:  Yesterday NPR had a story about a response to the devastation in Haiti known as Crisis Camps. In a nutshell, a dozen or so computer savvy people gather in a coffee shop around their laptops on a Saturday and after a brief orientation and some software training spend the day organized around relief projects based on an area of expertise. Some pour over satellite images of Haiti looking for hospital camps, they pass GPS coordinates to a doctor and nurse sitting a few feet away who put out a "tweet" to see if anyone at those coordinates needs supplies, someone texts back, the text is forwarded to a project manager who locates the nearest supply depot, coordinates transportation, and gets the supplies on their way. There are programmers actually writing new programs to help move information in and out quickly. In the interview on NPR, the speaker was saying they are trying to get teams of people started on projects in London who hand off to people in Cambridge, MA who hand off to a team on the west coast who hand off to a team in Hawaii so that there can be focused, expert, action-oriented attention for 24 hours. Even the fractured earth is part of a flat world.

Because I view the flat world through an educational lens, and because some of the best educational experiences I have observed and read about in the last few years are project-based (moving away from teaching in the "silos" of the academic disciplines), I wonder about the educational implications of Crisis Camps for schools. Imagine high school students in London, Boston, Los Angeles, and Honolulu working together to help a village in Kenya get a well. Imagine a team of students, their teachers, and some community volunteers beginning a malaria vaccination project when the first bell rings Monday morning in Manchester, UK handing it on at lunch to some students in Manchester, NH just starting the day who then pass it on to students in Manchester, CA.  All the while they are learning history, social studies, science, mathematics, project management, and life skills.

Of course I have a biased lens. Put the idea of a school-based version of Crisis Camps in front of you and look in turn at that concept through each of the following 8 Conditions lenses: Belonging, Heroes, Sense of Accomplishment, Fun & Excitement, Curiosity & Creativity, Spirit of Adventure, Leadership & Responsibility, Confidence to Take Action. Only because I don't want to disappoint friends who tell me I frequently belabor the point: Compare such an experience to: "Open your geography text books to page 143."

Educators conditioned in the previous world-view are in the process of making policy that is going to make use of money to make schools make students make "adequate yearly progress" as measured by making marks on a scannable piece of paper.  Why not set polices that will teach them to make a difference instead.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Follow the Money

If you want to start a debate, walk into a teachers' room and ask what people think about paying students for getting good grades.  If you want to turn up the temperature in the room, change the topic to whether or not there should be merit pay for teachers. In my conversations with many educators, there is little agreement on either subject.

But let's follow the logic.  What if central offices allocated funding to schools in the district that were more academically successful?  What if resources were allocated to each school not on a per student basis, but on a per standardized-test-passed basis or some other academic measure?  Am I turning up the heat?  What if state DOE's apportioned money by the same standard? You probably see where this is going. 

Now let's follow the money.  At the student level, money for success kindles minor controversy.  At the teacher level, it sparks righteousness on both sides.  At the school level, it blazes into an outrage fueled by equity issues. But then something shifts and money for success (Race to the Top) becomes warmly received.  There are many things debated about Race to the Top, but the underlying principle is something most states are bending over backwards to adhere to, not pushing back against.

Aren't there only two consistent options involving the use of federal money to improve education?

1. Success leads to Money.  Give money to successful states to give to successful districts to give to successful schools to give to successful teachers to give to successful students.  In this option, the people giving the money get to define what success is and everyone is accountable (literally) to the people they "work" for--that is, the people who pay them for said success.  If you consistently fail to hit targets the people who are giving the money set for you, you are not re-funded.

2. Money leads to Success.  Distribute money equally on a per-capita basis and let states, districts, schools, teachers, and students work together to define and achieve success.  In this option, the people getting the money get to decide what success is and everyone is accountable to one another for doing what they say they are going to do.  If you consistently fail to hit targets you set for yourself without adequate explanation, you  are not re-funded.

Of course there may a third option.  Disconnect money and success altogether.  Let success at all levels be its own reward. And let money be just a resource used to buy goods and services--keeping in mind that you get what you pay for.  Naive?  Un-American?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Was I That Kid?

I learned something from a group of 7th graders the other day. I was conducting a focus group around what students find interesting in school. The topic of working in groups came up, as it typically does. The students were expressing a preference for being able to pick their groups. I was probing a bit and asking about other ways of forming groups--randomly, or the teacher picks, etc. One student said that the problem with such groupings is when there is one "smart" student in the group.

My memory rewound to my own experience in school. I found myself agreeing, internally. There is a problem with that.  My bias is that group work, though beneficial for lots of reasons, does have an inherent unfairness in that the industrious kid does all the work, while the lazier students ride my (um) his or her, coat tails.

The key words are: my bias. What the students went on to teach me is that the problem is that the "smart" kid dominates the group. Other students want to help, want to participate, want to learn, but the smart kid won't let them get an idea in edge-wise.  I had never thought of it from that angle before.  I was an A student in school, at least academically.  After the focus group, I think I may need to apologize to some old classmates for getting a D in "works well with others."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Taking a More Organic Approach

This weekend my 16 year old daughter and I watched the classic Paul Newman movie The Hustler.  The story is a billiard based morality tale about character, determination, and greed.  It's a good movie with some great scenes between Newman and George C. Scott.  As we started watching the movie, I remarked at how young Paul Newman looked.  My daughter said, "Oh. He's the guy that makes the coffee and salsa and stuff." All I could say was, "Um.  Yeah.  That's right."

I wonder, as educators, if we really appreciate how different is the world our students inhabit.  It's far beyond Paul Newman being an organic food purveyor and not one of the great actors of a certain generation. The other day I overheard a college student saying that school was really unnecessary. The point she was making to her friend was that in a Googleable world, sitting in a class room to learn something was obsolete.  As I listened, I heard that whenever a professor assigns a book, she just Googles it, reads a few of the hits, and then says "Yeah, I read the book."

My point here is neither nostalgic nor critical (either the college kid should be a better student or the professor should design better assignments).  My point is that we do not involve our students as full partners in the teaching/learning environment at our peril.  So foreign is their world to ours that their voice needs to be heard at the design stage, not just in the delivery stage.  Active and meaningful engagement is not just about having students participate in the classroom.  That's a great first step.  It must also be about students' appropriate participation in all facets of a school's decision-making. Dare I say that such an approach would be more "organic."  More in touch with the living, breathing experience of our students.  Absent their voice we risk them hearing "coffee" when we say "actor."