Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dressing Up the Profession

I have written a few previous blogs about dress codes in schools. There are all kinds of implications for school climate that hang on a school's dress code. Everything from student Belonging to consistency of disciplinary action. When I uncover a tattered faculty, somewhere at the bottom of the pile, typically,  are some members of staff who are buttoned down about the dress code and some members who aren't.

The news out of Manchester, NH yesterday was interesting. If you missed it, the Manchester school board voted 11-1 on alterations to the professional dress of their educators by snipping out 15 articles of clothing. The list includes Spandex, short skirts, jeans (ouch), flip-flops, and sneakers (except for PE teachers--who also have other exemptions). They stopped short of making male teachers wear ties after some knotty debate.

I have been in a lot of schools and conducted professional development for hundreds if not thousands of professional educators. I have worked with a staff who arrived in professional dress on a Saturday and I have seen flip-flops on Fridays. I have observed a teacher in jeans and sneakers commanding respect and a teacher in a jacket and tie commanding none. What is interesting to me about the Manchester story is what you learn when you scroll down past the story to the public's comments. Don't let time hamper this. The back and forth between the teachers who are commenting and the community is tailor-made for insights into how educators are viewed in our society.

There are any number of reasons people site for why they don't respect teachers to the same degree they respect other professionals--lawyers, doctors, business people. Summers "off" is one. "Short" work day is another. I suppose now we can add how they dress to the laundry list.

Monday, May 17, 2010

May I Go Outside

Part I: Fun & Excitement is one of three Conditions students consistently tell us gets them actively engaged in their lessons. We do an exercise with teachers where we have them make two lists: One of things they do they find fun and exciting and one with things they do that are dull and boring. We then look for common elements. The former fun lists involve interacting with other people (parties, playing games), being physically active (rock climbing, sports), being outside (hiking, gardening), and having choices (picking a movie). The latter lame lists involve being alone in a crowd (waiting in a line), being stuck inside (because of weather), doing repetitive tasks (ironing), doing required work (cleaning, laundry). Then we ask: "Which of these two lists look more like what we ask students to do each day in school?" Admittedly it's a bit of a "Gotcha."

Part II: I learned in Teaching 101 that you should never teach a class outside no matter how nice the weather or how much the students beg. It's too difficult to maintain focus, there are too many distractions, and it is too difficult to be heard. When I was teaching (pre-QISA) I never taught a class outside--not when I taught in high school, college, or grad school.

Part III: Working on Fun & Excitement, one of our Demonstration Sites developed May, I Go Outside. During the month of May teachers could sign out one of three available spaces to take students outside for a lesson. The catch was that they could not simply move an existing lesson outside (e.g., read aloud on the lawn rather than read aloud on the carpet). They had to incorporate the outdoor environment into the lesson. The outside had to be a focus so as not to be a distraction. Develop adjectives based on things you see outside for a story. Count the links in one chain on the swing set and then multiply to get the total number of links. Collecting at least four different kinds of bugs for science class.

Part IV: When I retire back to teaching, I can't wait to go outside!

Post your Fun & Excitement best practices at qisa.com.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Teacher Appreciation Week

Last year I undertook a project to send Thank You notes to people who have had a significant impact on my life. In part it was a meditation on Heroes, the second of the 8 Conditions that Make a Difference. You will not be surprised to learn from someone who became a teacher that many of the addressees were teachers. Although I could not find Mrs. Kelton (my first grade teacher) and received a very nice letter back from the wrong Ms. Lovero (my sixth grade science teacher), I did make contact with many others from elementary school, high school, and college and expressed my appreciation and gratitude.

During one of the best openings of a school year I have ever seen, the superintendent of the Laconia, NH school district, Bob Champlain, invited students to be present to be recognized for success they had had the previous year. First up was a high school student who had significantly improved and was on track to graduation in the current year having come precipitously close to dropping out. Bob briefly told his story and he was warmly applauded. Then Bob asked the guidance counselors and teachers who had worked with the young man to stand up. Seven people rose and there was more applause. "Please remain standing," he said. Then he asked any teacher who had had the young man in class or who had worked with him while he was in high school to stand. Another fifteen people including administrators. Then Bob asked his middle school teachers to stand. Finally, his elementary school teachers. Nearly one-third of the room was on their feet. It was a great way of embodying a truth it is often easy not to notice.

This week is for appreciating all teachers present and past. The web of relationships that comprises each one of us is taut with the many people who have taught us. If you know a Ms. Lovero who taught science in the sixth grade in Jersey City, please say thank you for me.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dress Code de Mayo

If you have browsed the QISA website you know that our work in schools is meant to affect a school's systems and structures. The 8 Conditions are a framework, not a program. The goal is for a school, having learned the framework, to ask questions about and make change to the school's policies, procedures, norms, and customs. Aspirations work has implications for everything a school does--schedule, course offerings, budget, professional development. Does our discipline policy encourage Leadership & Responsibility? Does our Language Arts curriculum inspire Curiosity & Creativity? In one of our schools, their study of Belonging had them reconsider a dress code policy that didn't allow some students to be themselves and still be part of the community. The revised dress code was appropriate and inclusive.

I thought of this school last week when I read the news piece about the students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill California who were sent home on Cinco de Mayo for wearing bandannas and shirts with the American flag. Concerned that this would be an offense to Mexican-Americans given the day and that it would spark fights, the administration gave the students three options: remove the offending articles or turn them inside out, receive suspensions, or go home. The students chose to go home.

Maybe we don't know the whole story. Maybe there is history in this school between the flag-wearing students and those who celebrate Cinco de Mayo. What I do know is that this teaches the students in that school something about Belonging, something about diversity, something about the options for difference-that-may-cause controversy being limited to flight or fight. How does the administration's "solution" to what they saw as a problem on the fifth of May, solve whatever issue they thought was behind it? An issue which presumably was still there on the sixth of May?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Dr. King, the Lunch Bunch, and the Achievement Gap


Another blog prompting triple coincidence yesterday. Last night I watched the outstanding PBS American Experience biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have read and watched shows about Martin Luther King before. I have had a tour of Selma, Alabama thanks to Dr. James Carter, former superintendent of Selma, who assists with QISA's Demonstration Site in Perry County, Alabama. I have visited Brown Chapel, where Dr. King started several of his historic marches. But something about American Experience really caught and held my attention. Perhaps it was the program's emphasis on the truth that, although James Earl Ray pulled the trigger on the gun that killed Dr. King, it was the country's racism that "put the gun in his hand." My wife and I both gasped audibly when a very average looking white woman in an on the street interview following the assassination calmly said, "He probably got what he had coming to him." I'd like to think I am not naive. I grew up in an inner city, but the events of those days are always shocking to watch.

Coincidentally, I came across a news story out of Ann Arbor, Michigan that told of a Black Students Only Field Trip at an elementary school there. In short, African American students went on a field trip to hear an African American rocket scientist speak about his work as a way of inspiring them with the limitless possibilities open to them. The students on the trip are part of a group called the Lunch Bunch who receive special attention in order to improve their academic performance in school. The news story includes excerpts from the principal's defense of the field trip, which, according to the article, is "part of his school’s efforts to close the achievement gap between white and black students."

Coincidentally coincidentally I had just previewed a forthcoming QISA research article on the relationship between the achievement gap and what we call the expectation gap (both students expectations of themselves and their perceptions of their teacher's expectations of them as measured on the My Voice survey). So there you have the convergence of three events linked by a common thread.

The thread comes right from the stirring words of that most famous speech of MLK.  The particular words that move me to tears every time I watch a video of "I Have a Dream" are: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." I can't quite make it all fit together. These words, the field trip, the achievement gap. I can't get free from the feeling that, as well intentioned as the Ann Arbor program may be, setting apart a group of students based on the color of their skin promotes another kind of gap in schools that contributes to the achievement gap.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bullying: A Study in Contrast

I had another one of those studies in contrast yesterday.  On a drive to one one of QISA's Demonstration Sites in western Massachusetts, the radio carried news of Governor Patrick's signing into law Massachusetts first anti-bullying law.  Those who follow bullying as an issue will know that this comes in the wake of two students who committed suicide after allegedly having been bullied. Bullying is a serious issue and requires serious action. Law-makers and the governor took the steps they believed necessary to protect the state's children. Challenges to the law are anticipated and the grown-ups, for reasons benign and not so benign, will keep hashing this out for awhile.

At the middle school Demonstration Site, I participated in the monthly joint meeting of the adult Aspirations Team and the newly formed (this year) Student Senate.  The Senators, who represent their grade level teams, had been given the task of devising ways of catching students being good or doing right. The ideas ideas ranged from awards for respectful behavior, being helpful, etc. to be given out each term to postcard-sized certificated to be filled out an awarded on the spot.  All were oriented toward students recognizing students for being part of a culture of support and friendship.

The contrast was two fold: First, adults trying to do things to make schools safer and so more conducive to learning for kids contrasted with kids (with adult support) trying to do things to make schools safer and more conducive to learning for kids. Second, the law's focus on punishing the worst kinds of behavior in schools contrasted with the student's focus on celebrating the best kinds of behavior in school. Sadly, we probably need both approaches. My concern about the legal approach is that some bully's actually thrive on the negative attention that their behavior brings and now they are really going to get attention. My hope for the Student Senate's approach is that it will keep nurturing an environment of positive interactions--one that marginalizes bullying behavior even as the adults deal with whatever bullying continues to occur.