What next? I vote for Empathy and Discussion

Anxiety. I’m struggling with exactly how I feel about this election, but I know one true emotion is anxiety. The weird thing is I have this unhealthy curiosity about how a Trump Presidency would play out. The Liberal in me wants to flood Facebook with #notmypresident posts everyday, campaign for electoral voters to go against the state’s voters decision, and do all I can to make sure the dystopia he is planning never comes to light. The Patriot in me wants to stick with the constitutionally elected President and support him, guide him, and work to make him the President we need.  But then I realize that the Electoral college was meant to make sure the correct person was elected. I look at what a Trump Presidency most likely means and my stomach drops. So I’ve been thinking about where to go from here.

I have been reflecting (not just alone, my wife helped a lot) on how at how we lost this election and it dawns on me that the Democratic Party doesn’t have much self awareness. If it did, it would have known that the anti-establishment vote was incredibly powerful this time. It would have seen how many people were anti-Hillary, but had voted for Obama. The DNC would have given Bernie a fair shake and likely see his name as President Elect instead of Trump. We claim to be the party of caring, the party of love, open mindedness, and peace, but I think the thing our Party is missing is true empathy. It seems like our party has selective empathy. We do a great job empathizing with families of color, the lgbtq community and women. Of that I am tremendously proud. I love that our party fights for the people who are most marginalized in our world. It is something I am forever focused on and plan to always keep as part of my life’s mission.

The area we need to focus on is creating a message that shows true empathy. I even lost this in my frustration over Trump’s messaging. But it was so easy to ignore Trump’s supporters and to dismiss them. Instead we need to validate those who were angry over how useless our government has felt over the years. We got so blinded by the things Trump was saying that we couldn’t even attempt to understand why someone would want to vote for him.  Instead we just assume they must be idiots, racists, bigots, and hate filled. While there is a healthy portion of this population in his voter pool, it is a minority, I fully believe that.  We never took the time to really empathize with the majority of Trumps voters. We never understood how unheard they felt. Pennsylvania is a prime example of this.  I live in Philly and am proud to say that 85% of our city voted for Hillary in the hopes of defeating Trump and electing a highly qualified candidate. But our state lost. From what I can tell, the working class dems that don’t live in the city either didn’t vote, or voted for someone other than Hillary because how they felt didn’t seem to matter. Until we can start really attempting to work with, and speak to, the voters who voted for Trump and to the disenfranchised voters who didn’t vote for Hillary or Trump, then we’ll never get ourselves out of this hole.

It is so easy to attempt to stand on moral certainty about how wrong all the things Trump says are and just expect everyone to fall into line. The problem lies in never engaging in discussion because you have decided that you are right, that your opponents are wrong and that simply because you are right, you will win. If I look in my own heart, I wasn’t too thrilled to vote for Hillary, I was definitely wishing that I could have been voting for Bernie instead.  There was something too predetermined and forced by her nomination.  Again, I was torn because I passionately wanted to avoid a Trump Presidency and I was proud to vote for a woman for the first time. But I was wanted the first woman I had been voting for to be Michelle or Elizabeth instead.  So knowing that in myself, I can truly empathize with voters who selected Trump as a big middle finger to the same kind of government they’ve felt powerless to effect over the last 40 years or so. I was also able to understand that as a woman, Hillary didn’t have the same freedom to seem as principled as Bernie did in the political world. I understand that Hillary had to always play the game, and often made her political interests in her husbands interest so as to not rock the boat for his presidency. Torn is again, the best way to describe many of my feelings.

Discussions are needed. Real listening is needed. Open minds are needed. Inspiration is needed. An overhaul of the DNC is needed. Love is needed. Because at the end of the day,  really are in this together and we should be listening to folks who might have different concerns that the ones that are often media focused, traditional democratic concerns, the concerns that fundraise well, or the concerns that make the most sense to us.  Because it isn’t just us on this boat.  The whole country doesn’t live in a beautiful melting pot of diversity like my wonderful city.  That means the problems many voters live with with aren’t mine or yours, but a set of problems we have to be willing to emapathize with, problem solve around, so we can build policy that resonates with more than just the die hard Liberals in our country.

Oh Bernie! He just posted a brilliant article about where to go from here. Grassroots indeed, but let’s also realize that we need some real understanding, listening and growth as people, and as a party.

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Crazy Ideas for Crazy Change

I have always wondered why teachers are some of the lowest paid people, and yet have one of the most important and crucial jobs. I will freely admit that this going to seem like an incredibly self serving post being I teach math, but I’ll bring it around to the students soon, I promise.

My idea for our new fellowship involves some sort of salary subsidy that would come from the people who graduate from our program.  I was thinking something like 2% of their salary once they leave university would be put into an account that goes towards faculty salary.  My thoughts are these:

  1. The economic incentive helps make sure the school stays up to par which fosters a connection to the school that never really ends.
  2. The salary of the teacher becomes something that is enticing for all people since the subsidy is meant to go towards paying teachers wages that elevate the profession to something closer to some of the most important roles in our society.
  3. There is a feeling that the better all our students do later in life comes back to benefit us.

I don’t know, maybe this takes some of the honor and altruism away from the profession, but I think at some point, teachers have to stop sacrificing so much of their lives to do what they love. I also think that at some point society has to invest in their teachers in a real way.

In studying motivation on creativity and productivity, Daniel Pink says that if you get the money right up front, make people feel like they are part of something bigger, and provide autonomy for people to lead and create great spaces, you will see great things happen fast.  I think that if people literally are buying into the profession they will see amazing things happen.  That means that our students get the best teachers who are more satisfied with all aspects of their lives and give the best they can for the long haul. The hope is to reduce teacher turnover, burnout, and increase incentive remain reflective and growing. Is this realistic anywhere? In the areas where people live well below poverty? I don’t know, but again, my hope with this is that it only affects the people who finish their Bachelors degrees.  Please share, and lets see what people think.

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PreK through…???A new “NON system” for Learners, A New Fellowship.

Have you ever had one of those gnawing ideas that sticks with you? You feel passionately that you want to make it a reality, but are struggling to figure out just how? Well this post is about that idea that is stuck in my head and screaming to be figured out.

I should preface this with how the idea came about. For a while now, I have been living on the edge of seeing how incredibly important education is for all students and realizing there needs to be a better way. I have seen some great ideas come about using technology, alternative assessments, and other progressive movements in education. I love the push for mental health, growth mindset, and gradeless environments. The latter is the catalyst for this concept and possibly this blog. I believe strongly that numerical/letter grades, competition, and the stress they both create hamstring much of our students’ learning before they ever start. Take the fact that much of the achievement gap begins to show at 4th and 5th grade (when we start to give letter grades). Also take into account the millions of teachers frustrated with the question: “will this be graded?” and realizing that learning has become secondary to points, status, rank, and prestige of college.

In studying the idea of removing grades from the classroom, I came across the only true roadblock to things changing.  Simply put GPA is still one of the first things that is put on an application to college, and more importantly scholarship applications. So, given that our current system is basically designed around this grading scheme that ultimately says nothing about learning, mastery, or character I decided we need something better.

I am more or less certain, as is the rest of the country, that there has to be a better way to run schools than our current educational model at the moment.  We churn students through our system to a diploma. Two thirds of our graduates won’t realize that two thirds is greater than three fifths. Then we send them to college woefully unprepared for a number of their general elective courses.  In addition, many of our students don’t have any certainty about what they hope to do with their degree and where they want to go professionally.  A growing percentage come home from college lost and jobless. In addition they are being saddled with a mountain of debt from a degree that more or less says you paid tuition for 4 – 6 years and did enough to graduate. Within two years of graduation upwards of 73% of college graduates work in a field that has nothing to do with their degree.

Please don’t get me wrong, I do see a tremendous amount of value in what education does for those who get one.  I just also know that the people who are truly getting a solid education are not the same people who are getting degrees. In addition, I also see how the current system only serves the population who can afford the proper support it takes to do well in the current high stakes grading and testing culture we live in. I also know there is a vast population of students who do not get the same opportunities to even attempt to get that degree in the first place. I am merely saying that the trend we’re on can not be sustained and I want to head it off before we go over a cliff.

So, my idea. Create a network of schools, businesses, and universities tied to the same mission, the same fellowship. Students as early as  infants (pre-k) come into our model. They work their way through the curriculum we have adopted with advice from business leaders, universities, and our education team (along with adoption of standards). The plan is that many of the ideas in the blog plus hopefully many, many more ideas get infused in the “non-system” by creating a great team and even better culture.  The basis of the system is to lower stress, increase student discussion and learning, and to move away from the churning conveyor belt style of education we have now.

Once a student graduates from the secondary level, they move on to an entry level job with one of our business partners.  This could happen at 18 if that is appropriate, or at 20 if need be, I don’t know why we arbitrarily send some students out into the world when it is clear that they aren’t ready. Our graduates also become a fellow of our network of universities. During those 4 years students are making money, getting mentorship on financial responsibility, and learning how to be a responsible adult under typical circumstances that post graduates experience (just without a mountain of crushing debt). Once the 4 years of work is up (must work for a company for at least a year at a time) they are accepted into a university that they choose in the network. The idea being that over those four years they have saved money towards the typical college costs. In addition, the partnership between business and university helps to subsidize the student’s tuition to a much more manageable rate (no I don’t know what the contracts would look like).  Now upon graduation the degree holder has life/work experience, membership in a strong network of people/organizations, the ability/maturity to find work. Ideally work that is fulfilling, interesting and in line with their studies. Did I mention that they don’t have crippling debt as a parting gift?

I have a lot more to say on this matter, lowering the cost of college degrees is not the only reason I want this to work, but Netflix is calling my name and truthfully, no one wants to read a blog post that is greater than 1000 words. Until next time, have a great evening all, and please let me know what you think of the Fellowship.

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If you do this, then you get…Why we need to stop trying to control our students.

I heard a great piece on the TED Radio hour podcast yesterday about motivation and what truly motivates people.  Daniel Pink described the candle experiment where people were tasked with building a candle holder using a box of tacks, a candle and matches. The subjects were asked to affix the candle onto the wall so that the wax wouldn’t drib on the floor using only those four things. One group was timed with no incentive, and the other was timed with a monetary incentive.  If they were in the top 10%, they would get $5, and if they were in the top 5 people of all those tested, they got $20.  Given that I am describing this, hopefully you realize that the people with no financial incentive were much faster.  On average 3 minutes faster.  This has been true for over 40 years of doing this experiment.

What Pink and others have described, is that any activity which requires creativity and learning of any real significance requires three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  The reason that the money incentive didn’t work, was that it narrowed peoples focus and increased stress. This causes a more rigid mind to struggle with thinking outside of the normal procedures. Pink goes on to say that when people are constantly working towards mastering something, they need to have choice in the matter, and feel like they are contributing to something larger than themselves. When that kind of setting is created people thrive on a creative and powerful way.

This seems like a brilliant way to to think about schools.  The current model is all about “if then” statements and ultimately about control.  From the bells that ring telling people when to move, to the grading system.  If you do this assignment, you’ll get a grade.  If you don’t, you’ll get a zero.  If you do enough work when you’re told to, you’ll get a diploma. If you get your diploma, you’ll get into college. If you go to college, you’ll get a good job.  I could sit here all day and find more ways we seek to control our students all day. These incentives and disincentives that are really just means of controlling them. I believe this is because controlling our students is easier than trusting them.  I believe this is because there is an illusive sense of safety in control and trusting students is scary. Am I saying that we completely give up oversight and management of students?  No, absolutely not, I also trust kids to be kids.  That said, I do believe that our current model is fundamentally counterproductive the service of real learning. I think this idea is a critical piece that our new system needs to learn from.

How can we design spaces that allow for autonomy?  I could see technology being a great piece there. What you had space for students to spend time reading interesting stories, listening to podcasts, or watching youtube and they could develop their interests that lead towards classroom discussions? What about providing students the chance to decide what kind of day they want to have? Are they morning people?  Definitely not most of my students, and yet we say if you’re not at school by 7:45, you’ll get detention. What about recess? Why haven’t we figured out a recess for students of all ages?  Why is recess going away at all? It seems insane to me that we are making life such a drudgery for our students, when it is clear that injecting fun the day is vital to improving the ability to work hard, be creative, and learn effectively. Why would every company from Facebook to a local company named Power Home Remodeling be so focused on their employees enjoying their work place if it wasn’t to bring the best out in people? Check out a great piece in the Washington Post about recess here. I think recess could be a lynchpin towards schools becoming exceptional places of learning.

How about mastery? I see mastery as the one we actually strive for in school, but almost never reach. This might be because of what we deem mastery to be?  We often say, students will be able to…but what does mastery really look like? If we redesign the methods of assessment we can find a way towards a mastery that makes sense. If we eliminate grades, we can focus on a mastery that drives towards learning.  If we remove these controls and actually discuss with our students, we can find a way to this mastery.  As it stands, students essentially discuss point totals with me most days, and hold very little retention. I say this as we read stories where nearly 70% of American college Freshman need to remediate classes before they begin their General education coursework that would then lead to their Major Coursework. We need to incorporate real authentic feedback as often as we can. Our schedule needs to allow for it, our curriculum needs to be built around it, and eliminating grades is the first step towards this focus on what students know and can do, instead of the how well students play the game and work within the controls of the teacher. Right now, I’d wager the students who do the best, are the ones who “behave” inherently and have the right supports to navigate the system efficiently.

Purpose is essentially all that I have been trying to build in our new ‘non-system’ we’re building here. If we get the culture right, if we build in the community, if we are really a ‘homey’ school we can help students see their purpose. If we provide autonomy throughout their day, and we help them see the mastery they are achieving, then we can easily build that message of purpose. Because the purpose of each student is to help their peers grow and learn.  When our students’ purpose lies in connecting with others, with making the world a better place, and with growing as a global community I can’t see how we’d fail in our mission.

None of these things will happen if our school is based in control.  None of these things will happen if we don’t build trust into everything we do.  Trust, autonomy, mastery, purpose. I can’t wait for our first day.

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To tech or not to tech….

I have a couple of friends who play craps and love to always bet on black. Definitely something influenced by the great Wesley Snipes. I  prefer to diversify my portfolio.

I love technology. My wife would say I love it too much in reality. I always want the latest and greatest gadgets. But I am also willing to realize its limits. I also see the dangers of forcing a thing where it doesn’t belong. I don’t want our students to be given the same service they’ve always gotten, but just from a robot instead of a person doing their best robot impression.

I’m mostly saying that unless we fundamentally change the look, feel, and message our students receive no amount of products from Apple or Google will change anything of any real consequence in education.

I do think there are some amazing things that can be done with web based products like desmos.com for math exploration and peardeck.com for presentations. Khan Academy definitely has its uses as well, but I want to make sure we don’t fall into this tunnel vision mindsent where technology will save our students.

One of the first problems I see is the financial side of things. Many of the kids we need to serve as a country can’t afford the technology. They might be able to swing it the first time, but to stay up with technology as it evolves often requires additional funding. We have to be mindful of where that comes from. Second is the implementation has to happen across the board. Meaning, teachers in all disciplines will need to buy in to tech integration or the devices will feel unnecessary if they aren’t used in meaningful ways.

Another danger I neglected to mention was tech fatigue. Not every teacher loves new technology. It means new lessons, or at least a new approach to an old lesson. While this sounds like a great ideal, new iniative fatigue is hard to combat, easy to fall into, and from which is incredibly difficult to climb out. When we initiate something new, there has to be time to try, assess, reflect and discuss be for considering something new. If there is a new tech initiative every 2 years, teachers will be tired, frustrated and most importantly they will lose faith in the process.

I certainly want to keep technology a piece of the puzzle, but only a piece. I’d love to incorporate computer science, 3D printing, design thinking and innovation as a mindset that accompanies the technology side of things.

I have used tablets and definitely prefer them, but also think a few laptop carts is needed to help supplement activities. I love Apple TV, I love Google docs and I think there are great ways to integrate technology. As with everything, it needs to have real purpose. Having technology can’t be a purpose.

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Trust, Mistakes, and Good Schools

Those first two words have to go hand in hand with our school.  What are we calling it anyhow?  Lets think on that.  Is it a system?  I think we should find a new word for it. District, System, Archdiocese, Diocese, Corporation, Charter, etc; None of these seem to fit with what we really hope for in this experiment.  Something that hasn’t been done, and something that also inspires hope.

Anyhow, Trust and Mistakes.  They are so incredibly crucial to creating an environment that creates amazing results. Now, obviously, there needs to be boundaries on mistakes, but I feel like Mistakes are where we learn so much.  Nothing new or innovative will ever take place in a school if people are terrified to make mistakes.  We have to celebrate these, share them and share what they learned from them.

Trust, that is a heavy word.  It is also liberating.  Leaders who trust their faculty, have a faculty that will trust them in return.  There has to be this underlying peace that comes from real trust in order to be effective, enjoy your work, and find ways to grow together.  Trust makes mistakes palatable and moments for learning instead of fear.  Isn’t that what we want for our students in class?  We want them to trust themselves and their classmates enough to be able to make mistakes that they can learn from.  We want them to trust their classmates enough to be themselves, be vulnerable and in that vulnerability they can grow as people.  How can we expect them to do this, if we can’t on our end?

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Let’s Build a Homey School

Not to be confused with home schooling, or a school for homies(No issue with homies, just clarifying), I am talking about a school that feels like a second home.  The feel of the school is so crucial.  The more of a welcoming home environment that is created, the lower stress levels are, the more opportunity our students are given to perform closer to their potential.

There is no doubt that more research is needed about how stress affects the brain.  That said, there is a new flood of research that supports the notion that stress in the learning environment is much more of a detriment than it ever has been as a benefit.  I believe that we have to devote every policy we can to reduce stress, but also incorporate real accountability in our students.  Here is a recent TED Talk about stress’s affects on the brain. With the new information we have on the troublesome effects that stress can cause, we have to do all we can to mitigate its affects.

We’ll start with the building itself.  Halls need to be painted colorfully in a way that is bright, but not loud.  Plants should be included and maintained in and around the building, especially flowers. Bells should never be used again, ever. I mean seriously, unless there is a fire bells are about the most prison-like structures installed in schools I have ever seen. Desks should almost never be in rows. In fact, desks suck out loud and don’t do anything to welcome our students.  At least not the desks we’ve seen to this point.  There are so many better options, not the least of which is a standing desk.  In math and science rooms, I want walls of whiteboards with infinite whiteboard pens that our kids can use to move about the room and do work up and about.  I want an environment that shouts don’t lecture me to death! We can design a room that urges lesson plans to minimize direct instruction and begs for collaborative learning opportunities.  Our students should be excited by the decoration, architecture, the furniture and the ambiance created by our schools.

Next we go to the schedule.  At least in terms of High School; never again should our kids be learning more than 4 topics a day.  In a perfect world something along the lines of college type scheduling where the topic determines the amount of time per week is a phenomenal way to approach the scheduling. Most likely something along the lines of block scheduling where kids only see a few topics a day can really slow the pace of day down, allow 10 minute breaks in between periods, and create classrooms that are filled with time to really discuss concepts and dive deeper into them. Support periods and free time needs to be included throughout the day.  There has to be time during the day for teachers and students to meet and collaborate on efforts in class. Meditation has to be a part of the day. Three years ago the New York times discussed how “In sitting still, a Bench Press for the Brain,” we can stretch the muscles of our mind by sitting still and refocussing through meditation.  According to the Mindfulness in School’s Project teaching mindfulness to young people: “reduces (likelihood of) depression-related symptoms in adolescents.” This is a growing field of research and the benefits continue to increase as more is learned on the topic.  I believe if we build this into the school we can see results similar to the Visitation Valley Middle School has had using Quiet Time.

Growth Mindset.  I am 100% bought into Carol Dweck’s now famous concept. This is the foundation we must build the school on.  Every student can achieve at a high level.  Every student is worth the effort and labeling only works to divide students into groups, keep certain students down and builds a wall between the faculty and student body.  Focusing our school on growth, improvement, grit and determination makes every failure a learning moment and makes every challenge worth taking.  We have to build a culture around courage and understanding.  The faculty must be understanding and the whole community has to have the courage to make mistakes, take on challenges and work through issues to a real conclusion.  This is how real learning gets done.

The last thing, and  a large thing, is that the school should be based on real and honest assessment of our students.  This to me means portfolios that we maintain as a means of showing consistent growth.  Students must be taught self reflection with every subject.  “Grades” should be non-existent.  I plan to expand on this idea, but in the meanwhile check out the book by Mark Barnes or Starr Sackstein to go in depth.  Suffice it to say the traditional grading model focuses solely on points and grades, allows for inflated grades, battles over point scales, and very little discussion about what is being learned or not.  I intend to continue learning about the implementation of this system and write about it in much greater detail soon, so for now, this is something I’ll say is in development.

Realistically, I think if we approach our school from a place where every policy focuses on lowering stress, honest assessment, and growing as a community we will find real success for every student.

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