Teachers with strength are needed

learning ipads

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“Now I did a job. I got nothing but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character…” -Mal, Firefly

I recently read a blog post that really got me fired up, Randy Turner’s thoughts on discouraging young people from becoming educators. While I was ready to run a full rebuttal to his post, I decided to do a little more research and found that at a later date he had written another article that does encourage young people to become educators.  My initial fire calmed a bit and I think I understand his point of view.  However, in reading both articles I found myself at odds with several viewpoints.

First I need to be clear that I come from a different world. I’m an administrator in a private school where every teacher, and myself, are at-will employees. We have no union representation, we have no tenure, we live on a single year-to-year contract and a large factor of whether or not we return is based upon our performance in the classroom or in running a school.  I know this is the polar opposite of what public schools have in place. If I have read his articles correctly, it seems that the idea of eliminating these benefits would send a message that we don’t want excellent teachers in the classroom. On this account, I must respectfully disagree.

Many private schools without these benefits often have outstanding educators.  If the private school happens to be a Catholic school, then the teachers are often paid less than their public school counterparts and they often produce learning experiences for students that are amazing. The absence of the red-tape benefits found in public education allows administrators and teachers to make necessary changes in the best interest of the students. I do not think that the absence of tenure, union membership, etc. is to be feared, rather its is a liberating experience to work in an environment in which everyone understands that our performance and dedication to helping students succeed is what keeps us employed.

Mr. Turner does make several good points that I completely agree with. I do believe that public schools are far too focused on standardized testing.  This has reached such a fever pitch that even parents are beginning to demand standardized testing.  Again, I come from a different world. In our school system we do have a standardized test, but it is only a part of the evaluation of a students’ learning. It is largely used to assess areas of needed growth and areas of strength so that teachers can focus and work in concert with parents to help the students receive outstanding learning opportunities.  Just the other week, a parent asked me what our API scores were.  I explained that we do not have such scores as we have a different philosophy of education than our public school counterparts.   We focus on the individual growth and education of the whole person and standardized testing does not drive the entire educational program.  Therefore, I completely agree that Mr. Turner is right to demand that pressure should be placed upon reducing the importance of such tests in public education.

When I read both articles, it seems to me that Mr. Turner may have had several bad experiences with administrators.  While he is quick in his second post to state that there are some good administrators, the overwhelming mood expressed seems to be distaste for administrators.  As an administrator, I of course take some objection to what has been written.  There are good and bad administrators just as there are good and bad teachers. Having been a teacher who has taught every grade level from Kindergarten through 8th grade I understand the necessity of having classroom experience. It is such a blessing to meet with teachers and parents and be able to relate with them because I have taught students at that developmental level. I think every principal should do this. However, I also feel that it is easy for teachers to criticize administrators when they do not have any exposure to what administrators face on a daily basis.  I’m not interested in padding my resume but I am interested in trying new approaches that may help students learn.  That doesn’t mean that I enjoy never-ending paperwork etc. However, if we are being responsible in our duties, we must have data that demonstrates we are not just enacting programs and hoping for the best. We need evidence so that we know if what we are doing is actually making a difference.

I agree with Mr. Turner that we must make sure that teachers know that they are wanted and valued. I value each of my teachers and I see the great potential in each of them.  I hope to be able to mentor them in their growth to become even stronger educators. I think its time we boldly take on some of the challenges that face education.  I think its time that we encourage people to become educators, be they younger or older.

In the closing paragraph of his article, Mr. Turner states, “It is time that the only ones who are treated like children in our schools are the children.”  I know that he was making a point that the teachers deserve respect. However, I feel it’s a little condescending to the students.  I’m very careful to rarely use the term “children” when talking about my students, scholars, and young men and women who attend my school. Yes they are young, yes they are children, but I try to confer upon each student a level of the respect that adults also receive.  I’ve found that, in doing this, many of the discipline problems begin to be mitigated or removed.

I think its time for change in education (public and private). We should not be afraid of new initiatives that challenge the way teachers have taught for the past half century, rather we should look to the future with a healthy optimism.  Lets work for change and let go of archaic teaching practices, policies, and so-called benefits that really have proven to do very little in the way of helping the modern student learn. When we put students first, while supporting our teachers, amazing things can happen.

 ” I got people with me, people who trust each other, who do for each other and ain’t always looking for the advantage.” -Mal, Firefly

I know I’m on the minority when it comes to a lot of the views regarding benefits and education. However, I’d still love to hear your thoughts. I respect Mr. Turner and his opinions. He makes some very valid points and I encourage you to read both of his articles. What are your thoughts on this topic? Please feel free to leave a comment by clicking on the “chat/dialogue” bubble at the beginning of this post or by clicking here to leave your thoughts.

Stepping into the Future (one change at a time)

Why does he leave Reality?
Photo Credit: Hartwig HKD via Compfight

I thought it would be a good idea to document some of the changes that we have implemented at my school over the last few months.  There’s one thing that I cannot stand in education, and that is the almost complacent attitude many educators have in keeping things as they have “always been.”  My faculty learned early on that the phrase “But we’ve always done it this way” carried little weight with me. As such, I love to challenge conventional thinking so that we may examine our practices with a  critical lens in order to help students learn.

Change your grade level – Change your worldview – Help students learn

One of the major shifts I implemented this year was that faculty members are expected to change the grade level they teach every 3-5 years.  I’m not so cruel as to make an 8th grade teacher suddenly teach kindergarten or vice versa. Some people are simply better at handling the younger or tween age groups.  However, I do ask that they be ready and willing to change within a 3 year window of grade levels. For example K-2, 3-5, 6-8.  The developmental stages are close enough that there should still be some familiarity and comfort with these students.  If a teacher wants a major change I’ll help them but it is at their request.

Benefits: This almost eliminates the practice where teachers atrophy into their usual routines e.g. “I’ve taught this lesson for the past 10 years so I’ll continue to do so.” It also has created an organic PLC as teachers have realized that their comrades are actually there to help them.

Homework is now Practice and even that is on the way out

I had a huge battle on my hands when I took this one on.  I raised the question of why we even have homework [personal note my dissertation is on the topic].  So I made the declaration that homework would be worth 0% of a student’s grade.  You would have thought I dropped a bomb in the faculty lounge.  Some argued that it was their right to grade as they saw fit, others that it was necessary.  I reminded them that a principal is there to helm the ship toward a goal and navigate in a particular direction. Otherwise the school would be disjointed.

It was only when I removed homework from their grades as an example and demonstrated to them how it was impacting grades.  I removed homework from the subject “Spelling” and suddenly a student went from an F to an A.  They hadn’t completed the homework but they aced every test… I asked “what are we really assessing here?”  On the other side of the coin, a student with a B suddenly went to a D when we took homework out of their subject.  It was only when I demonstrated this data analysis that they all began to understand the gross injustice that teachers have done to their students over the years.  So how does it work now?

Homework is worth 0% of a grade. Students do not have to complete homework (which we now call practice).  They take an assessment. If they fail the assessment they may re-take it after they have completed any missing practice.  Its a middle ground… but eventually I’d like to see it removed entirely especially because there are no studies that demonstrate that homework is beneficial in the elementary grades.

Benefit: we are actually measuring student learning rather than student compliance.

Faculty Uniforms

Okay, I thought I’d have a bigger push back on this but I really didn’t get one (outside of a few who thought that female Oxfords (shirts) weren’t flattering). But I stand with The Fresh Prince on this one “You go to school to learn, not for a fashion show.”  I work at a Catholic school so the students are already in uniforms.  The faculty uniforms help us to look professional while showing the students that teachers are not above the same rules that govern students. What do we say to our students when we place them under arbitrary dress rules and we don’t adhere to them ourselves?

Benefits: We look professional. Students bond with the teachers easier. We send a clear message that we are unified.

Ideapaint is the best

We put ideapaint in every classroom taking up one wall.  Nothing has been more transformative or amazing than having an entire wall surface as a creative whiteboard.  Students, teachers, and all other shareholders are always amazed when they see this in use. We will be adding this to every wall in the near future.

Benefit: Creativity. Students are not locked into a small dry erase board to let their ideas fly.

There are other major changes that I’ve implemented, but I want to keep this post short. I’ll write another post about other changes later.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these changes as well as any changes you see as being beneficial at your school.

I welcome your comments.

The Times (and the Classrooms) are a-Changin’

Photo Credit: John Wick

you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone – Bob Dylan

I recently had the pleasure of giving a presentation (though it was really more of a discussion) about the removal of textbooks from the classroom.  At the beginning of the presentation, I demonstrated how classroom environments have changed little over the last several centuries.  Think back to your childhood classrooms and more likely than not you’ll picture a square room with rows of desks all facing forward in a straight line. Its the tried and true lecture style of teaching.  We have grown to expect that teachers will be the lone keepers of knowledge, safe in their ivory towers of isolation, doling out bits of wisdom from their state approved tomes of power. The problem is that this line of thinking is woefully outdated and does not accurately reflect the world in which we live.

I cannot remember the last time I ever held a job, or within my career, when I was asked to sit with 30-40 other people in straight rows to complete a task.  Our world has become one that values collaboration.  The ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances is one of the most vital skills any person can learn.  Yet, we force our students into these artificial rows and accept this as the normal setup for any classroom environment.  What a shame that we automatically think of these environments as necessary.  It’s teacher centered, and diminishes the ability of the students to collaborate.

The picture at the beginning of this blog post [blurred and cartoonified to protect students’ identities] is taken from one of the classrooms at my school.  I had one brave teacher who was willing to take up my challenge and change the way her classroom worked.  I posed the audacious question: “Why do we need student desks?”  Together we pushed the desks out of the classroom and asked the students how they would like to learn.  The results were amazing.

Students brought in bean-bag chars, bouncing chairs, folding chairs, and seating devices I had never seen before.  Parents raised an eyebrow but knew we were trying to do something different, something that would help their children.  Every student in this class has an iPad and we have a projector with an AppleTV that allows the teachers and students to instantly interact with each other on the subject they are learning. We put Ideapaint on the wall and now the entire wall is a creative work surface. We have a few students who like the feel of a desk and they use it at their discretion.  This setup has been a huge success.  Students are engaged and excited to come to school.  Students in other grades are talking about how they also want to have the same setup.

There are difficulties associated with this.  The teacher has to give up decades of indoctrination into the rows and lecture style of teaching.  The teacher has to become a facilitator, a mentor, a collaborator in knowledge making.  The teacher has to be brave enough to sometimes say “I don’t know, lets see if we can find out together.”  It is time we stop blindly walking into our classrooms and accepting what is there simply because it has always been there.

I challenge each of you with a classroom, or you administrators in charge of a school, to walk into  your rooms and look at them with new eyes. See it as a big empty square box and try to remember what the childhood version of you wishes he or she could have as a classroom.  Ask your students to help you.  There is no reason why we have to adhere to models that were designed for lecture halls and Industrial Age societies.  We are all experts in our field of study.  Lets show the world that students come first and that we can help them succeed by giving them the environments they deserve.

If you do nothing else, make one major change to your classroom this week and try it out, the results may surprise you!

As Always I welcome your thoughts and comments on this.  What do you see as the benefits of changing classroom environments? What do you see as the challenges?

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Rebels in the Classroom

standing alone
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Paul Nicholson via Compfight

In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits that it discovers in itself – limits where minds meet, and in meeting, begin to exist – Albert Camus

I had the recent pleasure of watching an edcampHome session called the “Concept and Practice of Rebellion”.  If you’d like to watch the broadcast (it is only 25 minutes) of that session you can click here to view it or copy and paste the full URL: http://www.youtube.com/embed/XYfNg4d3Dto.

This was a wonderful conversation in which Samantha Bates (@sjsbates), Chris Thinnes (@curtisCFEE), Laura Robertson (@Mamarobertson4), Eric (@ericdemore), and Urbie (@urbie) met to discuss the concept and practice of rebellion as it relates to students in the classroom.

The session participants were very well spoken and provided an excellent discussion on the topic. Three main themes emerged that merit review and further discussion.

  1. Negative connotations associated with the word “rebellion”
  2. Teachers’ response to rebellion
  3. Constructive Rebellion.

I’d like to provide a brief viewpoint of each of these and would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Negative Connotations

“Rebellion”  – The word almost instantly generates images of those who are rising up against something and taking action (often in violent ways).  The origin of the word is situated from the Latin “Bellum” which means “War”. Chris Thinnes  beautifully illuminated this when he stated that rebellion is a “pejorative, insubordination, trespass against cultural norms.”  However, he also states that rebellion is necessary to give voices to our students to ask critical questions.  Therefore, rebellion is not always reviewed as negative; after all, if it were, I hardly believe we would celebrate our own rebellion from the British Crown.

As is often the case, perspective plays a central role in understanding rebellion. I’m reminded of an Addams Family quote, which in part states “…What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly”.  Without going into an axiological tirade of postmodern thought, I think it is safe to say that rebellion is a perception.  It is the perception of the student committing the act of rebellion and the perception of those in authority that makes the act a “rebellion.” Urbie brings up a good point that what we may be discussing as rebellion is actually asking students to think critically and always doubt what they’re being told.

Laura Robertson asks the important question: “How do we put rebellion into a more positive light?” Eric responded that one way would be to “stop calling it rebellion.” Maybe it’s the rebel in me, but I’m more inclined to continue calling it rebellion.  Only through using the word continuously to describe the acts we perceive as rebellion will the term become one that we own and that precisely describes the rebellious actions our students take. After all as Paulo Freire stated “language is never neutral.” With this in mind we need to examine the response of those in authority (teachers) to rebellion.

Teachers’ Response to Rebellion

During the conversation Eric hit on one of the major issues that arise from student rebellion: teachers’ responses to rebellion.  Often times when a student questions authority or the status quo they are met with an immediate shutdown tactic. Often, the teacher usually develops a negative view of the student and tells the student to simply follow the directions or rules. As Laura stated, our educational colleagues often view rebellion as insubordination that is to be avoided. I think Eric beautifully explained this point when he stated the professional quandary that educators face in these situations when he asked, “Are we [educators] going to try to stop rebellion in its tracks, or are we going to try to yield some type of teachable moment from it?”

Samantha Bates brought up a good point in that often times disruptive students are labeled as rebellious when they are often just confused.  Teachers need to really understand what the student is going through; they should be supportive of active inquiry rather than shutting it down in a totalitarian display of authority. Once more I am drawn to Freire’s line of thinking: “Any situation in which some men [teachers] prevent others [students] from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans [students] from their own decision making is to change them into objects.”  Our goal is to help our students become critical thinkers and to have the ability to give voice to their opinions.

Samantha Bates expresses one of the greatest fears of teachers when she stated that “The Boston Tea Party was a rebellion, but I don’t want my students going on a rampage in my classroom.” I think this describes most teachers… there’s a natural fear of losing control, of admitting that we do not have all the answers, however in admitting that we do not have all the answers we become co-constructors of knowledge with the students.  I’ve found some of my most positive teaching moments took place when the students and I worked together to find the answer to a question.

To this end, I believe that we need to open up our classrooms and schools to become environments in which we are open to this type of dialogue. I would love to see this take place as a bottom-up initiative where teachers begin to form this type of environment, yet there will always be those who actively resist such environments.  In such cases it becomes necessary to have a top-down model.

The school, as an institution, must create the environment and hold teachers accountable for their support, or lack of support for the practice of encouraging student inquiry. Chris Thinnes explains that “when the institution has created a space (schoolwide) in its vision to hear students’ concerns… teachers tend to feel either empowered or obligated to create that space (ability for students to rebel).  As Freire stated, “If the structure [classroom or school] does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.”

Constructive Rebellion

Our goal must then be to foster the spirit of rebellion within our students and to provide the environment in which they may actively voice such rebellion.  Samantha Bates expertly observed that that “rebellion stems from change – it is recognizing something amiss and wanting to change it; our job as educators is to teach students how to constructively rebel.”  Eric described a time when his students rebelled with the guidance of teachers as an act that was focused, organized, and controlled rebellion.

Controlled Rebellion?  Isn’t that a contradictory phrase?  I believe that Camus quote at the beginning of this post adequately answers this question:

“In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits that it discovers in itself – limits where minds meet, and in meeting, begin to exist.”

Camus hit on an epistemological foundation in realizing that where minds meet, the dialogue between individuals and sharing of concepts is of paramount importance to the human condition and very act of rebellion. To ignore this limit and forgo the respect of these limits creates a situation contrary to the natural state of human existence.

We must therefore help our students to find and express their voices.  This doesn’t mean that we acquiesce to their every rebellious action or inquiry (after all there are many examples of rebellions that have not been successful), rather it is our duty to help students begin to actively participate in the act of their own existence.  We learn as much from our successes as well as those times in which we do not succeed.

Laura Robertson stated that, “We want to create students that are actively engaged citizens.” Eric describes this type of rebellion as “the difference between being active and being passive.”  We should be encouraging our students to become more active in their daily experiences.  Only through action can they begin to understand and authentically connect the lessons they learn in school to the reality in which they live.

Samantha Bates stated, “I feel like I am rebellious and I enjoy rebellious students.”  I couldn’t agree more; we are duty bound to inspire the rebellious spirit of critical inquiry and action within our students. Our future will be defined by the actions and voices of our students, as they become adults. Let us give them the experiences and tools necessary to expertly wield their causes; otherwise, we risk creating a generation of what Tom Petty termed rebels without a clue.

As always I welcome your conversation. What are your experiences with rebellion in the classroom? How do you deal with students who challenge the status quo? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

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Libraries and Tech Labs: Oh My!

New York Public Library

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight

Moving backwards through time; Never learn, never mind – Soul Asylum

I’ve been reflecting on the nostalgic urge that seems to have a stranglehold on most adults. We tend to cling to those artifacts that we have learned to use and we resist changes that may make our lives easier.  One of the greatest challenges that I faced when we were building a new school was to decide what to do with the library.

For centuries a library has been the hallmark of knowledge and research.  Having a large school library made a statement that the school had the tools to teach students.  Yet, every book in the library we had could easily fit on an iPad and still have room left over. I remember the looks and comments I received when I said we were not going to have a traditional library.  Many simply couldn’t fathom how or why we would take this course of action.

I’m not one to just remove something without a reason.  A quick review of the records for books checked-out from the library revealed that over 80% hadn’t been taken from the library in several years.  A closer review of the inventory also revealed that many of the books were well out of date and no longer reflected accurate information.  The reality is that the library had become an antiquated showpiece that resonated well with adults and parents who had grown up with the library in school, but it received little effective use by the students.

I had a recent visit from a librarian who asked me why there was no library.  I gave my usual answer, which includes: “students use devices that have all the books and materials (updated in real time) on modern devices, the library wasn’t a room that was used effectively for the type of learning that once took place within its walls, we were able to create smaller classroom libraries that were designed to be able to change rapidly based on student interest and changing world conditions, etc.”  The only response I received was a nostalgic sigh and a statement that “… But there’s just something about a book, opening it, turning the pages.”

I can relate. I too grew up with libraries, but I wonder if this “something” about a book is our desire to hold onto our old ways of thinking and learning.  Are we forcing students to learn using an outdated method simply because we are most comfortable with the resources we used as children?

Many know that my background was in educational technology. So the common response is often “well then you must have put in a computer lab.” Once more, I had to reflect on this method of teaching.  Is an artificial lab experience really the way in which students interact with technology on a daily basis in their everyday lives? Therefore, we also do not have a computer lab.  Instead, we are focusing on using the technology that students work with in their everyday experiences.  We do not create artificial learning environments, but strive to create authentic learning opportunities for our students.

I know that this is a very divisive issue.  After all there are librarians and tech coordinators that still hold to the nostalgic way of thinking.  I think libraries and technology are  important for schools, but not in the nostalgic ways we’ve been implementing them. We have to change.  Administrators, Teachers, Librarians and tech coordinators need to reenvision their roles and responsibilities and take a leading role in creating environments that will better serve students.

I’m happy that I have made the bold choice to bring my school into the current century.  I believe that we need to use the technology of today to help prepare students to use the tools of tomorrow for a successful life.  Far too often we are using the technology of the past and this technology doesn’t even begin to prepare the students for the jobs of the present.

As always, I welcome your comments and thoughts on this very active and changing issue in modern education.  What ideas do you have for libraries and technology labs? How do you envision the future of these resources?

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Ushering in the New Renaissance in Catholic Education

SJSA Grade Six -  The Year I Rebelled
Photo Credit: Michael 1952 via Compfight

Catholic education once stood as the bastion of Catholic faith formation and academic vigor. In 1965 there were approximately 12,000 Catholic schools serving nearly five million students. According to a recent NCEA report there are now 6,685 Catholic schools serving nearly two million students. If we liken this to historical events, I would argue that it is safe to say that Catholic education has been, and is continuing to go progress through its own “Dark Ages”. I believe that it will take a New Renaissance in Catholic education to bring our schools out of these dark times. What does this mean? First it will be important to identify just what makes this the “Dark Ages” for our current system.

Logically, the decline of enrollment and the closure of schools is the first indication that things are not well for our Catholic school systems. Like most large institutions the Catholic school system has been slow to change and to adapt to the modern world. Prior to Vatican II, Catholic education had a very easy way of being self-sustaining. The pastors would compel the parishioners to send their children to the parish Catholic school. Religious, keeping the costs of operating such schools to a minimum largely operated the school.

As the teaching and administrative positions in schools were filled by the laity, and parents were no longer compelled to send their children to Catholic schools, a natural decline in enrollment took place. Unfortunately, many administrators and teachers falsely believed that enrollment would hold steady or increase simply because it always had in the past. Despite decades of decline, I find that some still hold this perspective. This is a sure recipe for the complete collapse of the system. So what are we to do?

It is at times like these that we stand on a defining point. It is our perspective and willingness to take action that will determine if we fail or succeed.

If we take the traditional view, we will be doomed to failure. This view makes the point at which we stand a precipice that falls to a bottomless pit. Taking no action and simply expecting parents to show up will not work. Relying on strategies and implementations that have not yielded results over the last few decades with the expectation that they will somehow suddenly reverse the tide is foolhardy at best. In the words of St. Joan of Arc, “Act and God will act, work and he will work.” Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for bold action and bold change.

Rather than see our current status as a precipice, I see it as the base of a steep incline toward growth and rebirth. We have an opportunity to redefine Catholic education, while still holding strong to our faith, Catholic Values, and teachings. For so long, we have been complacent to teach using traditional pedagogical approaches. We have held fast to the rows of desks facing the front of the classroom and surprisingly…. we STILL have schools with the green slate boards and chalk! We have held onto antiquated designs and methods simply because it is the easiest road to take; it requires the least amount of work. Parents are less likely to argue if you keep the system the way it has always been, yet the system has been ill for quite some time. We, as professional educators and administrators, have a duty to become the penicillin for our ailing school system before it becomes terminal.

As we stand at the beginning of a climb to greatness, we must be bold and strategic. My motto has been, “Business as usual is not how we conduct business”. This means that there will be conflict. Teachers will be asked to work harder in ways that they have not worked for the last few decades. Administrators will need to acknowledge that some will resist these changes, even from those that have been their most ardent supporters. And in the words of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, sometimes, “Parents just don’t understand”. I am not saying that this road will be easy. On the contrary, those willing to take up the noble goal of breathing new life into Catholic education will often feel as though they are standing in an empty field taking on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It is important to remember in these times that our mission is to provide the best possible Catholic education to families who desire to receive this type of education.

Those who take up arms against this change do so largely from an innocent ignorance. It is important to remember that parents assume that their children will be taught in the same manner in which they were taught. Often, this means that parents came from a time before state standards, academic standardized testing, and differentiated instruction. The modern classroom is perceived as alien to many parents. Likewise, many seasoned administrators and teachers have similar perceptions. If we are to change the course of this ship, it will take bold action on the part of administrators and teachers. Some administrators will need to face a faculty and parent community that does not understand the change. Some educators will have to face administrators who do not see the benefits of implementing a new program that will cause dissonance among other faculty members and parents. Some parents may desire this change and face a school environment that is content to keep business as usual, as the faculty and administration watch enrollment ever decrease.

Ladies and gentlemen, whether you are a parent, administrator, or teacher, if you wish to ensure that Catholic education not only survives (something which many perceive as the goal) but THRIVES (what the real goal should be) then we must make the difficult decisions. We must admit that we need to work harder. We must join the current century and prepare children to enter the adult world prepared, not for the present, but for the future. You will face opposition. You will encounter resistance. The battle will not be easy. But the faith formation and academic preparedness of our students is of paramount importance. I challenge each of you to take on the goal of implementing at least one small change this year. Step by step we can usher in the New Renaissance of Catholic Education.  We can not only match the enrollment that occurred in the mid 1960s, but we can surpass it. Join me in this journey and let us walk together in prayer and thanksgiving for the success we are sure to experience with our faith in God and our hard work at his disposal.

Some ideas for change:

– Alternate classroom arrangements / environments

– Implementing a 1:1 technology program

– Changing grading practices (IE. Homework worth 0% of grade or elimination of HW)

– Removal of textbooks and other primary sources used in their place

– Strengthening the schools Charism throughout all programs

These are just a few ideas; I’d love to hear yours. Please leave a comment below and lets build a bright future for our students and Catholic schools!

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Facing the fear of change for the benefit of students: Braving a change of grade level assignment

blindfold
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Wouter Kersbergen via Compfight

“…in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy

The above quote from Tolstoy touches upon an almost universal truth.  Humans, more often than not, tend to look at how they can change the world without first examining how they can change themselves.  It is hard to turn the lens of critical analysis upon oneself and to embrace change as a key component to continued growth.  Humans, for the most part, tend to find their comfortable niches and stick to the routines that have proven manageable.  I say “manageable” because these routines may not always be the most effective; they simply have to suffice for the task at hand.  We get comfortable and begin, like Garth in Wayne’s World II, to “fear change”.  It would seem that the very nature of the universe is change and it is the one thing that can be counted upon time and again to strike the most fear into the hearts of humans.  Fearing change is like wearing a blindfold. It hinders you from seeing the bigger universe.  It is time we take off our blindfolds and venture forth into the world with our eyes wide open so that we may be able to help our students succeed in life.

You may be asking, why I’ve developed a sudden interest in change and the natural fear that seems to go along with it.

The truth is that next year I will be starting a new school and my vision is to have this school be the very essence of change. It will exist to improve student learning through the piloting of new programs and initiatives.  It will become a laboratory in which our goal is to help all students achieve mastery of their subject domains. I’ve long been, and continue to be, a supporter of using research to drive instructional and organizational decisions. However, I’ve found almost zero research for one of my initiatives that will be implemented next year. I’ve conducted research in a multitude of literature journals and educational databases from the university and I’ve still found little in the way of research.  That means that the initiative I am proposing is based upon anecdotal observations.  I propose the following:

Every three to five years, teachers should change the grade level in which they teach.

I know that some teachers are already pointing their slings and arrows in my direction, however I ask that, if you are one of these teachers, you hold back your attack and first listen to the reasoning behind this initiative so that you might understand why I have chosen this course of action.  Perhaps by the time you are done reading, you too may be swayed to take arms against a sea of troubles with me (Hopefully Shakespeare doesn’t mind me repurposing his words).

Let me preface this next section by stating that next year every teacher at my school is experiencing some type of change (be it grade level assignment, subject matter taught, or pedagogical methodology).  The response has been overwhelmingly positive from my faculty and many are excited to be a part of this initiative. With that being said, here are my observations (and these are taken not only from schools in which I have taught but in visiting many other schools and observing their operations).

Stagnation can lead to atrophy

 

As a reminder, these are all of my own anecdotal observances they are not based on any research.

I have witnessed teachers who teach one grade level for many years.  By many I mean 10 +.  Some would argue that this would make the teacher an expert in that grade level and I would agree.  This is certainly a possibility, however, more often than not, I have found that teachers in this situation tend to stick to the lessons they like the most, they don’t embrace new teaching methodologies, and they genuinely have a severe lack of understanding of what other grade level teachers do throughout the year.

In the process of remaining the same, they begin to whither in their effectiveness as educators.  I’ve witnessed teachers teaching lessons about butterflies, dinosaurs, family trees, etc. when these topics are not even part of the standards that are supposed to be taught to their grade levels. I’ve witnessed teachers who actively resist utilizing new technologies that have been proven by research to help improve student learning, teachers who are more happy using an overhead than actually having a student interact with the subject through using technology.

In essence, teachers in this situation tend to get stuck in a feedback loop and never really develop beyond their first few years of lesson plans. The tragedy is that students suffer at the cost of keeping a teacher comfortable.

Lack of organizational understanding

 

The other observation I have made is that sometimes teachers who remain within one grade level tend to become an island unto themselves. They lack a clear understanding of what other teachers do for the school and only focus upon their single room. Imagine a teacher who never understands the pressures and responsibilities that an 8th grade teacher has in helping his or her students enter high school, the responsibility of teaching sacraments in 2nd grade Catholic school, or the difficulties in planning weeklong science camps in the middle school?

For some, it is difficult to develop a true respect for the roles and responsibilities of other grade levels until they have been asked to take on those responsibilities. In this regard, I seek a deeper understanding and mutual respect among fellow educators.

The god complex

 

I’ve witnessed this in at least two different schools with teachers that have held a single grade level position for more than 10 years.  Sometimes teachers begin to believe that they are the best individuals for the grade level and that no one can do the job better than they can.  I’ve heard these teachers actively throw near tantrums when a change to their curriculum is introduced or when a teacher is asked to take a portion of their class to teach because the class size is too large for one teacher. I am under no misconception. I know there is always someone in the world that can do the job better than I can. My job is to do the best I can with what I am assigned.

The danger is that these teachers develop such hubris that they begin to stop seeking better ways of teaching and actively derail new initiatives if they do not fit within their comfort zone. It is better to be humble than to build delusions of grandeur.

The plan

 

So, what then is my plan?  As an administrator of a Catholic school I have a global view of the teaching landscape within my site.  I am not hindered by thinking of only a single classroom or grade level, yet I also lack research to support the initiative. Does that mean I should do nothing and allow 200 + children to remain in a situation that I feel is not in their best interest? I think not. So here is my plan.

First of all, I need teacher buy-in.  For the most part I have it.  Any new teachers that are hired will be hired with a full understanding of this plan and that should help alleviate any anxiety about moving to another grade level (after all I will be upfront and discuss it during the hiring process).   Once I have teacher buy in, I need to develop the implementation.

I do not believe that switching grades every year is helpful (unless a teacher specifically requests it).  Rather, I believe that 3-5 years allows a teacher to develop a thorough understanding of the grade level they are teaching and to have confidence with their subject matter.

I also do not believe in drastic changes, such as moving an 8th grade teacher to teach Kindergarten.  It takes a special teacher to teach kindergarten and a special mindset to teach middle school. Drastic changes such as these would happen only at the request of the teacher and only with thorough analysis and review conducted by the administration.

What I propose is that teachers move within roughly a 3 grade level setting.  For example teachers moving from grades 1-3 would help develop a greater understanding of the responsibilities of these grade levels in developing literacy for students.  Grades 4-5 may wish to move up or down depending on their preference. Middle school is a bit tricky.

Middle school tends to be departmentalized and I do not believe in moving someone outside of his or her credentialed area of expertise. Therefore these changes would largely be between grade levels.  Most of these teachers teach grades 6-8 for their particular subject so their curriculum really doesn’t change that much.  However, changing homeroom grade levels does introduce them to the responsibilities that each grade level faces.

This is truly a pilot program that I am initiating in my school next year so I will be carefully assessing its effect upon student learning.  If it proves successful, then I will continue to adapt.  If it does not, then I will adjust as necessary.  The one thing I cannot stand doing is nothing.

As an administrator, it’s my duty to ensure that the students receive the best possible learning opportunities.  I know that there are teachers out there who will read this post and have an immediate negative reaction.  I also know there are some who would be excited by such an experience.   The nature of my school next year is innovation and change and if all faculty members believe in this, then I believe we can accomplish great things for our students.

Perhaps Tolstoy was correct and its time we look to changing ourselves in order to help change the world. After all, Socrates believed that “The unexamined life is not worth living”.  I agree. It is time we examine our practices, our lives, and start truly living in the realm of modern education.

I welcome your thoughts and comments on this topic.  What has been your experience with this? Would you like to try a program like this or does it cause anxiety? I look forward to your comments.

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Gen X in Education: Don’t be Late

Generation X

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Chrisinplymouth from Flickr

Our little group has always been and always will until the end – Nirvana

I’ve been mulling over what it means to be a member of a generation that is smaller than the generation that came before it and the generations that have followed. You see, I’m a member of that “forgotten” generation known as Gen X. Ive been reading “X Saves the World” and finding it entertaining and informative. Because this generation is a minority sandwiched between the Baby Boomers, Y gen, and Mellennials, I’ll fully understand if you skip reading this post and move on to other compositions that appeal to the masses. However, if you are compelled to read further, then I welcome you to this reflective piece of writing.

At the beginning of this school year I sat in a room with other administrators to hear a presenter give a speech on generational differences. He asked those in attendance to raise a hand if they were born between certain years. As he did this a vast majority went up for the Baby Boomer generation. Then he came to my range. I sat in the front row and raised my hand when he asked who was born between 1965-1980. I saw an interesting look cross his face as he noted me then scanned the room and stated “just you?” I glanced around the room and apparently it was true; I was the only administrator who was a member of Generation X. I thoroughly enjoyed his speech, however it was tailored to the Boomer principals dealing with Mellennials. I found myself in the unique position of reversing a great deal of what he said to help me work with my Boomer-Mellennial faculty.

Many of the traits associated with Gen X are vital to pushing education in new directions that have the potential to help improve student learning. Here are just a few traits associated with my compatriots:

  • Expects immediate and ongoing feedback & is comfortable giving feedback to others
  • Independent
  • Resilient
  • Highly adaptable
  • Dislike authority & rigid work environments
  • Eager to learn new skills
  • Works to live does not live to work
  • Not impressed by titles
  • Technically competent

The list goes on and on. As I read through the list above, I find that there is a need for each of these qualities in order to make significant changes to education. It would seem that built into the very fiber of my generation is a need to ask “why” something is done rather than to blindly accept what has always been. This is a valuable asset when taking up arms to challenge educational practices that have been in place for more than a century.

I’m under no delusion, we also have our weaknesses. Gen Xers can be overly confident. We can sometimes push forward and think, in our own naïveté that we know best. It’s a double edged sword. Sometimes that confidence is necessary to ignite real change and to weather the maelstroms that threaten to sink our initiatives. Other times, our disdain for authority hinders our ability to change course when the rockets come at us sideways. However, more often than not, it’s a benefit rather than a weakness.

Being a member of the minority generation perhaps means that even as more and more people become administrators, the number of Gen X administrators will always be small. However this should in no way hinder our ability to affect real, significant change in education. We may be a small group when it comes to generation population numbers, but we are also innovative thinkers who desire new methods of solving old problems.

I am the first Gen X principal in my diocese; an honor and a pressure that I embrace. I consider myself the first shot fired across the bow by Generation X to herald innovative, revolutionary change in Catholic education in my diocese. However, I cannot do it alone. It will be with the help of my Boomer, Y, and Mellennial colleagues that we truly improve student learning. I may be at the helm of the ship I call my school, but it is the crew that must trust in the direction in which I steer our course. Conversely, I must trust to the strengths and skills of the other generations that sail with me.

Gen X may be a small generation, however we have the potential to enact real, significant change. I call upon my brothers and sisters of my generation to stand up and apply for leadership positions in education. The time to make our voices heard is now. In the words of Nirvana (a symbol of Gen X):

“Take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours. Don’t be late”.

Perhaps it’s that last line that means the most. We (Gen Xers) do things the way we want, but we are rapidly approaching the point where we may be too late to affect change. So don’t be late my fellow X colleagues. We need principals with your unique qualities.

I found this to be an interesting reflection on my generation and value your feedback and thoughts. I would love it if you would share with me a comment or two on this topic.

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Teaching an Egg to Fly

“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn how to fly while remaining an egg.  We are like eggs at present.  And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg.  We must be hatched or go bad.” – C.S. Lewis

I start this post with the above quote from C.S. Lewis.  We have been eggs for too long my friends and we face the prospect of going bad.  In this regard, I speak about our failure (yes, if we are being honest it is failure) to have every teacher use technology effectively in the classroom.  We’ve been told that we need to teach 21st century skills, yet we are over a decade into the 21st century.  Must we believe that our teaching should encompass 100 years as an acceptable learning timeframe for technology?  Technology changes too quickly.  In the latter part of the 21st century will we really want to know how to operate an iPod or post a video to YouTube? Instead we need to teach this year’s skills and look toward the future. Yet we have failed. There are many schools in which teachers have resisted technology in their classrooms and they are still resisting it to this day.

Far too often I find that administrators focus on what makes their teachers the most comfortable and not on what the students need in the classroom to thrive in our current and future society.  This is the year 2013 and there are still teachers who rarely, if ever, use technology to help teach a lesson in the classroom, let alone providing the students with technology to use in their actual lessons.  I was in elementary school when the Apple IIe was being introduced to schools.  These computers were being placed in schools twenty years ago, yet we still have teachers who refuse to use the technology.  I say refuse, because at this point there really is no excuse for not learning how to use technology and implement it with students.

I think part of the problem emerged with Prensky’s “Digital Native – Digital Immigrant” labels.  At one point these labels may have been true, however I believe the labels have crippled any real progress toward teachers integrating technology.  It is far too easy for teachers who don’t want to use technology to say, “I’m a digital immigrant”.  Once that label is used there’s a sense of entitlement the supposed digital immigrant believes is his or hers.  They need help and we have to take it slow with them. – This is their belief and, unfortunately, the belief of many of their principals.  I’m sorry, but Prensky’s article was written in 2001 and for the term to still be in use over a decade later makes me want to laugh, cry, or both. Think of all the changes that have taken place in the last twelve years with technology, iPhones, iPads, Surface, etc. Technology has moved forward at an exponential rate (Moore’s Law anyone?) yet we have been taking microscopic steps toward holding teachers accountable for integrating these technologies.

Our students live in a world where they go home, use a computer, use a tablet, use a cell phone, video chat, etc. For 16 hours of their day they are surrounded by technology.  The true crime is that for 8 hours of the day we put them in an artificial reality (one devoid of technology) hand them books and pencils and we tell them to learn using almost none of the technology they use on a daily basis. If we think we are doing students any real favors we are deluded. How do we expect our students to be successful in a world that demands the competent use of technology if we hardly ever let them use it in their formative learning years?

I believe its time we stop holding the hands of those who are holding our children back. I cannot sit idly by and allow students to be hindered because an adult feels uncomfortable with technology. It is important that we remember that we are there for the children and not for the adults. The only way that we are going to help the children succeed in their future lives is to have strong administrators and teachers who are ready and willing to stand up for children.

We have to ensure that all teachers are using the tools of today so that our students will be ready to handle the realities of tomorrow.  I ask that you take a look at your own schools and teachers.  I’m sure you will find at least one individual who is fighting the rising tide of technological innovation. We have to get through to these people that the time for change is not now… it was yesterday.

I welcome your thoughts and comments on developing methods of helping students receive the quality education they deserve.  C.S. Lewis was right, we must grow or we face going bad; unfortunately resisting technology doesn’t just cause the teachers to go bad, it also threatens to cripple our students’ future lives.  We should already be learning to fly, but so many of our colleagues are still in their shells.  Its time administrators and fellow teachers make a stand to crack a few bad eggs.

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Image: Artwork and permission to use image granted by Terry Border  http://bentobjects.blogspot.com