Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Max Learning

My life has been blessed in multiple ways.  I am married to my best friend and I have what I consider to be the best job on the planet.  The biggest blessings in my life are my three children Stefan, Caroline and Max.  I am in the unique position to have had a child in my 20’s, one in my 30’s and one in my late 40's.  Children are the best thing and the hardest thing.  They fire your passion and pride while teaching you lessons in humility.  Nothing makes you more vulnerable than having a piece of your heart walking around in this big ole world!
Although all three of my children have taught me a variety of lessons, I am going to focus the latest lessons from the one that is currently living under my roof, Max.  Max is two and a half and could be the poster child for what people describe as, “all boy.”  To say he is “all boy” really under sells his true energized spirit.  When he enters a room, the wild rumpus begins!  He explores the world like a metal head in a mosh pit.  He is very loving, but sometimes loving him is painful.  Hugs can feel like a strangle hold applied by a MMA master.  Kisses can result in a bloody lip.  He can destroy a room in seconds.  If you are picturing the Tasmanian Devil, you have the right idea.  I know you might be thinking, that’s just my skewed view because I am his father.  Further evidence about his personality can be seen in the nicknames the teachers at his day school have given him over the two years he has been there. He holds several descriptive titles including, Grain of Gold, The Little Prince, Big Pappa and The Alpha Male.  Sometimes, his mother and I think we may have cursed him by referring to him as “Mowgli” before he was born. 

Before you start to think that he is beyond hope, let me celebrate the other traits he has.  Max has passion for life. He is inquisitive beyond measure.  Currently his two favorite sentences are, “What’s that?” and “What’s his name?” He is acquiring language at a logarithmic rate.  He is strong, fast, and fearless.  He is curious, creative and loves to help.  I find that he is perfect in his imperfection. But what he is best at is teaching me what the love of learning looks like.  If you want to see what engagement looks like, watch Max at play.  He is an explorer.  He likes to take things apart to see how they are put together. He adapts his toys to do things they are not designed to do.  An example of this is how he plays with his water table.  His table is designed with a water wheel, a slide for figurines and even a working diving board.  He rarely uses it as it is designed.  Instead, he pulls it apart and finds a variety of things to put in it from the back yard.  Rocks, dirt, my shoes and Max himself are all potential playthings to go into the water. 

Max Learning Lesson #1 – Provide open ended experiences and allow students to explore. Let’s stop valuing the ability of students to simply follow a recipe or fill in the blank with a correct answer. Let go of the ideal and instead provide the opportunity to let their curiosity (choice) lead them to learning.  Until students own their learning, school experiences will lack the deep level of engagement we seek.  I am always fascinated about what Max finds to spark his curiosity.  When we take him to the zoo instead of amazement at the elephants, his biggest interest is the fencing, hinges and climbing on the benches.  On a family trip to a strawberry farm, Max finds the biggest joy in playing with a stressed caterpillar that is regurgitating its breakfast on his arm.   
Max Learning Lesson #2 – Focus more on the process than the product. Let’s stop valuing what our students create for the way it appears without consideration of the independent work that went into it. Reduce the amount of help you give and instead focus on celebrating their individual effort.  If Max wants to mix the colors of Play Doh, that’s OK. If his Valentine heart sponge stamp looks more like a cabbage head, that’s OK. 
Max Learning Lesson #3 –Provide for variety and movement.  Few of us as adults can sit for 5 hours of a 7 hour school day without resentment.  Yet this is not an uncommon expectation for our secondary students.  If Max wants to stand while watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, that’s OK.  If he wants to escape from the stroller and take a detour while we are out walking the dog, that’s OK.  One of the best strategies for Max or any busy child is to give them a mission that involves physical activity. 
Max Learning Lesson #4 - Mind your words. What we say and how we say it has a huge impact on how students see themselves.  Last fall we were at one of the gym type facilities that caters to small children.  When it was time to clean up, Max modified the activity to be more engaging and challenging.  He picked up and carried the toys in his mouth and then practiced his bombardier skills by carefully taking aim as he dropped them into the bucket while on his tippy toes.  The teacher responded to his unique approach in a tone that was dripping with sarcasm, “Well that’s creative!” Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that this behavior might be a public health hazard and socially unacceptable for an older child.  My issue was with the use of sarcasm.  The teacher is very fortunate that Max is not developmentally advanced enough to understand the slight.  What I wanted to do was to channel my inner Liam Neeson and say:

Instead, we took our business to a different gym facility where his current "rock star" teacher, “Ms. G.G.” celebrates his high octane approach to every activity.  A great teacher makes all the difference!

As the product of public schools, I know that what our kids are getting today in my school is better than what came before.  With that said, we still have a long way to go.  We must find ways to shift away from what Sir Ken Robinson describes as the current "factory model" in place today.  I want a school culture that allows Max to be fully alive.  One that recognizes his strengths and sharpens his edges rather than grind them down into compliance. I want a classroom environment that celebrates creativity over conformity.  As his dad, how could I want less?  As the principal of 1,200 souls, I want the same for my students.  As their “school dad,” how could I want less?  I assure you that it is my great passion to do this work for kids.  Slowly but surely, patiently but passionately, I am committed to providing personalized learning for all.  Max deserves it.  All our kids deserve it.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Devil is in the Differentiation

Public education is in an engagement crisis. One of the most common concerns I hear from teachers is that their students are not engaged. If you gather a group of experienced principals together and talk to them about their top roadblocks to transformation on their campus, a lack of teacher engagement will be at or near the top of the list. According to Gallup research in 2012 only one in three U.S. teachers, K-12, are engaged in their job. Principals and district level leaders are not immune to disengagement. At almost any meeting or professional learning session all one has to do is look around the room and see a variety of folks engaged with their electronic device and not in the topic at hand.  Disengagement is a killer of learning and productivity at every level! How do we turn this around?

Some would argue that we could address this through punitive measures. Teachers continue to take points away for late work, record zeros for undone assignments and keep disengaged students after school. Principals document teachers who are unmotivated and not taking care of students and other professional expectations.

Others would argue that we can motivate others best through reward systems. Many schools, including mine, have token economies and prize structures to recognize positive behavior. Teachers give bonus points or extra credit for students who scramble at the last minute for a passing grade. A jeans pass for teachers is the order of the day for staff rewards. Some school systems offer staff members merit pay for what is seen as exceptional performance based upon test scores.

What we do know is that these external motivators do increase the level of behavioral engagement or compliance. This is not enough. Quiet classrooms and cooperative employees are no guarantee for student achievement or staff engagement. We must move beyond mere compliance if we want to maximize everyone's potential.  What we need is cognitive engagement. Creativity and critical thinking live here. So how do we reach people so that they are motivated intrinsically to engage at a meaningful level?

Daniel Pink does a fine job of shining a light in the dark places surrounding what motivates people. He shares research that shows that extrinsic motivators, like money, increase performance for linear tasks and those that require mechanical skills.  The same does not hold true for high level thinking tasks. 

Pink describes three factors that lead to better performance. (Click here to see the video) These are autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose. If you are struggling to engage others ask yourself these questions:
  • How am I providing choice for those I wish to engage?
  • How am I determining where people are in terms of their competencies and support them on their journey to achieve mastery?
  • What am I doing to make this work tie into a larger purpose?
I believe that these three areas speak to the need to personalize learning.  When it comes to personalizing learning, the devil is in the differentiation.  I hold Carol Ann Tomlinson as my top influencer when it comes to understanding what differentiation is and what it is not.  She has produced a number of books and other resources that will support interested educators seeking to become more masterful.  There are two key characteristics that she identifies for instructional consideration that align well with Pink’s research.  Tomlinson describes “interest” as what the learner enjoys learning about, thinking about and doing.  If we can give the learner the autonomy to choose, we are drawing from what drives from within.  A second characteristic that Tomlinson describes is “readiness.”  Readiness can be defined as the learner’s current knowledge, understanding, or skill set related to the learning target.  Establishing readiness provides a starting point for us to begin growing others toward mastery.  Human nature tends to predispose us to enjoy the things we are good at.  When we support growing our learners from where they are toward mastery, we again draw on their internal motivation and increase engagement. 

In the paragraph above I was purposeful in choosing the descriptor, “the learner.” Many would assume I am referring to students and the need for teachers to personalize their instruction.  This idea is bigger than that.  It applies to all of us at every level in the education world.  It is the highest form of hypocrisy when leaders ask others to do what we are unwilling to do. This is not easy work, given limited resources, time constraints, and the factory model that constrains much of our system.  These constraints define the box that we must innovate within. 

If we hope to break the trend in which shifting demographics are the best predictor of student achievement, we must differentiate to personalize learning for our students.  If we are to ameliorate the crisis of teacher disengagement, we must differentiate to personalize their professional learning.  If we are to engage education leaders and empower them to model this practice, personalization is again a must. 

I am encouraged that the State of Texas is moving to a system that has the potential to support the type of personalization we all deserve as educators.  If used appropriately as a tool for reflective practice, the proficiency scales embedded within the teacher system, T-TESS, have great potential.  These rubrics will provide the structure to have instructional conversations that are deeper and more focused than ever before.  It appeals to me that, as a principal, I will have the same type of scale to give direction to my personalized learning through the T-PESS framework. It is so powerful when our practices and expectations align at every level.  

Like most growth that leads to positive change, this will no doubt create discomfort for us all.  Are you willing to do the hard work and lean into this discomfort as a teacher...principal...central office administrator?  We are all charged with becoming the designers of engaging experiences. I am committed to fully engage in this work for my staff.  Let's model what we want for ourselves, each other, and most of all, our students.  We ALL deserve it!  

Feel free to leave your comments/thoughts/ideas below.  This is a discourse worth having.  Let's talk!