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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HR: Crucial for Great Schools

Lack of confidence in your administration can really lower motivation no matter where you work, this is especially true in our country’s school systems.  Confidence and a positive attitude starts with strong leadership, but today I want to talk about Human Resource Departments at schools.  It seems to me that as a whole, this is lacking in a lot of schools. I get the sense Human Resource as a concept is overlooked and/or under resourced at most schools. I believe that if every school had a human resource department we would see humongous growth in our education system.

My guess is that since most schools are run by a district, this aspect is often left to a small group of people trying to manage several schools and their faculties. This I think creates a disconnect, and ignores a great opportunity to help make amazing teams of really good teachers. The connection needs to happen on campus.  If it is separate, it is out of sight. We all know what that means. A great HR department sets the tone of an administration.  They model the level of professionalism that the administration expects of the teachers being hired.  They help build a culture. They are the welcome party.  They get teachers excited about working where they work. With the right tone and level of sincerity, your teachers will begin the process of buying into your mission, your model. In short, a great HR team allows teachers at a school to get on the same bus and begin collaborating as a team.

Here is my thought, and I am not pretending to have created this myself. I am putting it out there to make sure that when I have a school, or district, of my own one day that I have every piece of the puzzle beginning to take shape.  A teacher should show up on campus and receive every tool they can conceive of that helps their classes succeed. Right now, I like the iPad/macbook/apple-tv combination along with wireless printers and copiers. But whatever tools necessary.  Every policy that is expected to be understood is given a good amount of time, say a day or two reviewing with a moderator of sorts.  Perhaps an activity that requires reading, finding answers, and discussing issues the teachers bring up. Things like dress code for teachers and students, where to request materials, how to put a purchase order request, how to organize professional development, and how the school handles discipline should be clear and well explained/demonstrated. We would also spend a good amount of time discussing lesson plans, assessment, grading(or feed back as I hope to focus on in the future). I want to make sure that what I would want from all my teachers is transmitted and modeled.

There has to be thorough tour of the campus.  I love the form of a scavenger hunt or something fun with a map that describes where landmarks exist. We did this about two months into school this year, and we had so much fun. It would have made a tremendous difference on the start of my year. There ought to be a few hours where the new teachers reflect on teaching as a profession, why they are there, and understanding the school’s mission.  The idea is to really work through how their mission as a teacher aligns with the schools mission as a whole.

My general concept is to begin creating a culture much like something you’d see at a Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any of the companies that are considered the best places to work in the world.  I firmly believe that it is more important to love the place and people you work for and with, than it is to focus on your students and loving them. Whether we always put it out there or not, the student-teacher relationship can be really frustrating at times.  My motivation as a teacher has to come from within more often than from my brilliant students (even though I have so many brilliant students in my classes whether they believe that or not.) This culture of loving the school is that underlying driving force towards excellence, that carries people through the tough times.

The last thing a great HR department can do is to help the administration make strategic choices in hiring and policy. I recently read an article from Bersin by Deloitte, it was more about changing an existing corporate culture, but I liked this sentiment: “Leadership sets the tone and direction of a corporate culture, but HR could be the mirror for our leaders and help them see both the positive and negative elements of their decisions and behaviors.” I think faculty might feel less inclined to express concerns, frustrations and doubts with administration given the employee/employer dynamic.  As a faculty, it can be hard to find time worry about those thing or even to try to think strategically about where a school is going.  A great HR department can be the faculty’s advocate as well. They might be able to help an administration make better decisions before they lose the confidence of their staff, which is when a school can begin to lose its way.

I think a great HR department helps teachers feel like professionals, it makes them feel taken care of, and it elevates a faculties self esteem. It is all about making the most difficult job in the world, teaching, as easy as humanly possible, and giving our teachers the confidence to go out and be amazing at what they do.

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Truths I Believe in…

Acknowledgements:

  • I acknowledge that change is incredibly scary. I recently moved to the east coast, that was incredibly scary for me. I have changed careers and changed the path my career was going down multiple times, every time it is scary and hard. Every time it was worth it.
  • Not everything I envision is feasible now or anytime soon. This is a long view process, a look at a future we want and must work really hard to get.
  • I recognize that many teachers have likely heard proposals for change before and believe in their system they use now. This is why creating a new type of school is so crucial. This school would be a beacon, a model, a symbol for the change that is possible and hopefully inspire existing schools to change.

Truths I believe in:

  • Students rise to the expectations of the teacher and rise even faster if the whole school has the same expectations. Almost every student has lower expectations than they should.  Many feel this way because it has been fed to them by parents, society, previous teachers, or evidence(grades) they find damning. On the other spectrum, many students expect too much and burn themselves out with no time for true curiosity. The sources of this are often the same as the previous group.
  • People can grow as students, regardless of how they arrived on campus. If we categorize them as incapable, even in the recesses of our minds, they will stay that way.  If we believe in, teach, and show a growth mindset, our students will follow. 
  • School should a peaceful place low in contention, and high in teamwork and pride
  • Success should celebrated. So should mistakes. So should small acts of kindness. Growth is growth however small.
  • Growth in academics, spirituality, and co-curricular events should be considered success, not necessarily the typical sense of success where there is one great one and lots of losers.  That said, we need to celebrate the amazing things our students do more often (Monthly assemblies to highlight amazing things that happened the past month?). Maybe a page dedicated to this with weekly updates.  The virtual work on the wall that elementary schools do so well.
  • Modernity is no less valid, rich, or holy than traditional. In fact, being open to using what works along with ideas for new ways is crucial.  It can be exhausting to continually remake the wheel.  We have to find a balance between staying with things that work and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
  • People fight change no matter what, sometimes I think big changes need to be sought now so that change happens.  If we’re going to put the effort in, lets make a seismic shift. This is the only way to be a model.  If it is too much like the norm, than it’s just another school with a new name and fresh marketing.  Fundamentally, this has to be the school teachers and parents have dreamt of for years.

How will this work?  I am working on that, but I could use your help.  Join me.

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ESLR’s: Expected Schoolwide Learning Results

It seems clear to me and most educators that you have to begin any real task with the end result in mind.  What do we want our students be able to do?  What kind of experience do we want them to have?  What skills do we hope they leave with once they graduate?

Given those questions I thought I’d take a shot at some of the things that I want to see from students that matriculate from a place that I am proud to work:

  1. Our students will be courageous.  They will not fear making mistakes.  They will look a challenge in the face and dive right in with everything they have.  When they fail, they will celebrate the failure, dissect it, learn from it and grow.
  2. Our students will be kind. They will use their courage to treat all of their classmates with respect at all times.  Our students will be concerned for all people they come across.  They will have a world view that is wide open, and flexible to truly be able to help someone who might need a hand.
  3. Our students will be curious. They will know that learning never ends because it is the only true currency in this world. Our students must instinctually follow their curiosities like a toddler does, just with a little less fork-in-the-socket sort of logic.
  4. Our students must be able to start something all on their own.  They must know that they will learn because they started, not because they got the answer right.
  5. Our students will be self aware.  They must know when stress is weighing them down, or sleep has been too little, or when they need to step back and refocus their world.  They will practice mindfulness everyday and work towards a healthy balance of efficient progress, and healthy rest.
  6. Our students will make real connections with others. They must be able to have a conversation with people around them that isn’t assisted by technology.  They need to be able to connect with an audience too.  Our world experience is not solely one-on-one or over the internet.  Our students must be able to negotiate this world in all its forms.
  7. Our students must understand the technology that is in play with the world.  They must maintain the necessary skills that are relevant and constantly upgrade those skills to manage the ever growing needs in our world.  They must also manage to balance these technological skills with the skill of disconnection.  Being able to manipulate and create through technology is an addicting thing.  Being able to disconnect and refocus is equally as important.
  8. Our students must persevere with logic and creativity to solve problems.  They will need patience and confidence to work through problems in a way that creates a real solution viable for whomever is asking the question.
  9. Our students will be involved in the world.  They will know that in our connected world, anything that happens anywhere effects us all everywhere.  They will stay informed, interested, and engaged in the events that happen around us.  They will look for and work towards solutions that make the world better.
  10. Our students will follow through.  When they start something, they will see it through to satisfactory completion.  This will incorporate courage, perseverance, creativity, logic, and the ability to rest, refocus, and move forward.

I suppose 10 ESLRs is a solid round number.  I consider this a first draft and would love input on tweaks, additions, deletions, and any other ideas on the goals that we are a looking to create here.  My thought is to have extremely lofty goals, steadfast belief that every student is capable of these goals, and only hire people who believe the same is possible.

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Join me

I’m really excited about the new direction I want to take this blog, and I need your help. I want to start building a new kind of school, and I know it is possible, but I also know that I won’t be able to do it all myself I need your help out there. I want to start by looking at culture, assessment, day to day scheduling, building design, trust/student responsibility and teacher experience (what it’s like to work as a teacher.)

A major thing I want ideas on is how to help
students transition from senior year to college. I have some ideas which might lead towards a whole new type of university experience, maybe a whole new type of university, period. There will certainly be more thought experiments on this to come.

Anyhow, I would love to curate thoughts, ideas, activities, policies, and experiences that teachers and administators have had. The key is to focus on things that made schools robust centers of real learning, reflection, and growth that can be put together and implemented. Keep the concept of a school that helps kids become self starters who are empowered to advocate for their own education. I’m looking to create a setting where stress is lowered by being there, not increased. I want to begin building the framework for the new kind of school that we all want and need for our children and their children one day. Will you help me?
#education #shift #design #joinme #mission

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All men’s souls…

All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine.” -Socrates

I saw this quote tonight.  Things like this always make me wonder if I am living well or not.  I struggle with mortality.  I know all too well how short life can be.  I keep hoping I am living it rightly, worthy of the one chance I have.  I try to love with all my heart, be kind, and do as much good as I can.  But I feel inadequate somehow.  Inadequate in my efforts so far.  I want to do so much, and I am unsure what to do, and where to do it.  I feel I need a mission and someone to help guide me.  

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Stories to be told

I met a man the other day, he astounded me. He sat quietly amidst a loud sports bar in Murray Hill watching Duke play Michigan State. Let’s call him George. His son sat next to him, the pride in his eyes was evident, and I could tell there was something special about the years that he wore.

I was lucky enough to be sitting at his table. My wife happens to be good friends with George’s son’s girlfriend. We got to talking and it turns out that he spent 43 years in education as a councilor. If I knew nothing else about him, I would already be in awe of a career like that. In addition he coached baseball and softball for 30 years. I mean the stories that could come from experience like that must be unreal. And yet, a simple chance for this man to tell his story and I find out that he played baseball with Hank Aaron, Joe Torre and others. At one point in time, he was battling joe to be the number 1 catcher in all the minors.

George was obviously proud of his his accomplishments, but when he spoke of the connection he had with one of the players he coached I could tell where his real pride lay. Honestly, I’m not sure what impressed me more about George.

It got me thinking that a story like his has to be told, and I found myself wondering about stories of people I see on the street and how cool it’d be to interview and write blogs about everyday people and their lives, Now I’m just trying to figure out what questions to ask.

I wonder if anyone would read my story, would they read yours?

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