April 21, 2015

5 Things We Have to Stop Pretending

This post is my response to Scott McLeod's Challenge to name 5 things we must stop pretending in regards to Education.  My friend Steven Weber brought the challenge to me and the rest of our #IBA Voxer group. 

We have to stop pretending that.......

-  student engagement means students are sitting quietly and making eye contact with the teacher.  

-  classrooms need to have four walls, desks in rows, and textbooks for each subject.  

-  the best way to view student learning is by giving the student a test. 

-  student choice and voice ends when students pick the books they would like to read.

-  personalized learning means students taking standardized assessments and then being assigned to groups to read leveled books.

I'm tagging Curt Rees, Joe Mazza, Jimmy Casas, Jennifer Kloczko, and Amy Fadeji to take the challenge.

March 4, 2015

The Mask

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend #edcampMadWi in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.  They have a beautiful school there and this #edcamp draws an amazing crowd of educators.  I was at the first edcamp and haven't missed one yet.  It has become a yearly reunion and I love connecting with these amazing educators that share such awesome ideas, but I also look forward to meeting some new friends as well.

I decided not to propose any sessions this time and instead just decided to attend sessions that sparked my interest or would bring some new learning my way. What I had not prepared for was learning from students. The second session of the day that caught my eye was titled. Coping/Surviving Public Education. The session was filled with passionate educators that started sharing their methods for dealing with the stresses, and of course the conversation turned toward the political situation in Wisconsin and how it has affected teachers over the past four years.

But that wasn't what really drew me in and made me reflect. It was when I was encouraging the group to make sure we are putting out a positive image to the public, and even more so, to let our students share their story about school and the experiences they are having there.  I told them it was important that we let students share their voice, because they would be honest.  A student won't use Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to say they are loving school and all they are doing and learning......if they don't.  We needed to unleash student voice.

And then..........they did.  

Two ladies from a nearby high school had joined this session and apparently I said the magic words to get them going. That or maybe I just finally took a breath and they took their chance to share.  What followed was an eye-opener for me............and a heart-wrencher.

The two young ladies began by sharing how important it was to them and their friends that teachers get to know them. Not their test scores, or their assessment data or even their grades.  To really know them and how they feel.  What they are interested in, what they are passionate about, what they do on the weekends, and what they want to become?  They want us to know how they like to learn, but also where they like to hang out, what their favorite movies are, what their favorite music is, and who they would love to meet someday. They wanted their teachers to really know them. 

But then they shared a twist I didn't see coming.  They said, "but what is just as important, is that we want to know you." They wanted to get to know their teachers.  They wanted to know what you liked to do on the weekends, where you like to hangout, what hobbies you have, and how you handle your bad days.  Their list of real life questions for teachers was endless, and that they look to us for those answers everyday.

So.......touching, right? I mean, it was great that they saw their teachers that way and that they wanted that relationship with their teachers.  Personal Learning, not personalized learning. Well, that would be a great wrap to their story.  We could walk out feeling uplifted. Encouraged even.

Then one of the girls shared the thought that changed my perspective forever. She said, "It is sad, that many of you don't even realize that 100% of your students, are sitting in front of you with a mask on."  She paused......and I could see she had more to share.  She slowly slapped my face with the statement that opened my eyes wide, "100% of the students in your classes are stressed, depressed, scared, anxious, sleep-deprived, or suicidal.  We are there, sitting in front of you, with the mask we learn to put on each day to get through this thing we call school so we get through this thing called life, and we aren't even learning how to deal with it, because we are worried about passing tests, and getting into our next good school."

I was floored.  

Holding back tears as I shook my head in agreement, I literally couldn't speak because I knew I would choke on the words I couldn't find.  One of them told us how the students that were high achievers were under great stress to always get top grades, to get into Honors and AP classes so they could go on to get into top colleges or universities.  They both shared how the students that struggled in school always felt ashamed, blamed and unwanted.  They wanted to escape school because they struggle each day and so often they feel like their best option was to act out so they would be asked to leave the classroom or even be sent home.

But then they shared a scenario that I know exists.  The one that happens all to easily to even the teacher with the best intentions. The Wallflower.  That girl with brown hair, who sits in the middle of the room.  The student that always has C's and now and then a B.  The one that doesn't need help, but also isn't rising to the top to be noticed and pushed. The student that blends right into the wall, and is never really known.......to anyone.

What have we done to our students?  
What have we turned school into?
When did we lose touch with the fact that we are touching lives everyday?

Have we become talking heads at the front of the class? Spitting out knowledge and content only so that we can assess the student and ensure we taught the standards we have been told are crucial for success in a career or college. Did we forget we are teaching kids?

The two young ladies expressed with great passion, how important it was to them and their friends, that we begin to recognize them as people.  People that are growing up and going out into the world, and soon to be leading and managing that world, and possibly even being the decision makers, law writers, and political leaders for our country........ And we want them to make sure they can cover the standards, do a performance task, write an incredible essay, complete the packet of worksheets, study for the AP test, and get an amazing score on their ACT? ...........when what they also want to know is......

How do I decide whether or not I should get in the car?
How can you tell if He or She will be a good boyfriend or girlfriend?
When should I just end the relationship?
When can you tell if trust has been broken?
How do you find the time to do it all?
Why is family more important?

They want the answers to life, and they don't want them from a book, or a blog, or a video.  They want them from us.  Their teachers.  The people they look up to and trust everyday. Sure, they want to learn, be smart, be successful and be productive citizens. But they also know there is so much more to life.

Don't ever be fooled by the mask our students wear everyday.  And don't be fooled into thinking, "Oh C'mon....My students don't wear masks."  We all know the folks that have worn masks in front of us. Not showing us their pain. Smiling, making us laugh, showing off their talents.  All the while.....suffering in silence......wanting to make us proud. 

Never knowing that maybe we already were. Share your pride in your students. Don't be afraid to let them see your huge heart.  You're a teacher after all.  You Are AWESOME!

Who says "Morning Meeting" and "Sharing Time" has to end in elementary school?  Maybe the most powerful thing we do as we teach everyday, is to smile and say, "How was your weekend?"  Listen......and then say, "Let me tell you what I did."

I'll never forget the talk I had with those two young ladies and the experiences they shared with me that day.


January 1, 2015

New Year. Old Commitments. New Plan.

Well, it's a new year and like everyone else I'm making some resolutions.  It's that time when we try to commit to making ourselves better.  I can't lie, I'm attempting to do the same. What I will try to do differently from my resolutions in the past is that instead of making "Big Hairy Audacious Goals," is that this time I will be creating goals that have daily action steps. What I have discovered with experience and from my PLN is that the best goals only get checked off when they are followed with actions, small steps taken day by day.  Jay Posick, Josh Stumpenhorst and Spike Cook have shown me how this practice can make the difference.

So to restate my same ole, same ole goals, but with a refreshed effort and an action plan they are as follows:

1.  Lose 72 lbs.  - This may seem like a huge goal to many but to me this means just losing 6 lbs per month.  It means controlling portions and eliminating snacks (except a fruit or veggie).  I hope to blow past this goal as I have read many posts from Facebook about folks that had amazing results in just one year, but for now I will be happy with this goal.

2.  Increase Fitness.  - This goal is so vague it's almost shameful, but to be honest if I do anything to increase my fitness it will be a step in the right direction.  The key here will be making it daily.  No matter how long or what the type, exercise daily will be a key.  Establish a routine.

3.  Be More Gracious.  - I feel that I made a big impact with this goal last year and while I did a better job of showing gratitude this past year, I feel like I can still do more in this area.  Not only does it make others feel good, but it honestly makes me feel good and I will take all the positive vibes I can get.

4.  Be a Coach.  - This is something that I have believed in for quite a while and I think I have made strides here as well, but now it is time to become a model in this area and to develop an expertise. I have plenty of more reading to do and I am looking forward to a workshop with Jim Knight coming up in a couple months.  I want to be a Teacher's Coach and I want to be great at it.  Time for some more reading, time for more #educoach chats on Twitter and time to develop the courage to follow through on what I have learned and what I believe in.

5.  Be A Sharer.  - This is where I should almost state the goal as: be more courageous.  I share a lot on Twitter and Facebook.  I share articles, blog posts and videos with my staff.  But what I've always felt a little weak at was being a presenter.  I had the opportunity to present over the Winter Break and I actually enjoyed it.  It went well. I have watched some of the best presenters and I think I have said to myself I could never be that good, that funny, that witty, or even as smart. Pictured to the above is Joe Sanfelippo, a good friend and an incredible presenter.  He's a superintendent here in Wisconsin and I have met him several times and I can tell you honestly with no intention of helping a friend, he is a presenter you must see someday. His humor and wit is only seconded by his passion for his district and helping students and teachers be successful. He has helped me build some courage to try. It's time for me to conquer this fear and believe in myself and start to be a presenter at conferences. I have learned a lot over the years and especially through my connections on Twitter and Voxer. It's time for me to share what I've learned and to improve my presentation skills. I will try and I will get better, but I will be a presenter for at least 2 conferences/workshops this upcoming year.

I've never felt more empowered than I have recently and with the support I have had from my wife, my kids and some of the best friends I have ever had (shout out to my Voxer Brothers and Voxer Family) I feel like I can attain these goals with more ease than I once believed possible. I truly hope other educators get the chance to connect with such positive and supportive people as I have met over the last 4 years. They are wonderful and I am thankful for them for so many things, but mostly for believing in me and making me a better person.  Now......it's just time to:

December 19, 2014

BYOD in the Literacy Classroom

Being asked to write a counterpoint article on the benefits of a BYOD program appeared to be a challenge at first, as I happen to be a supporter of the integration of technology.  As I considered it longer, there are definitely concerns I have with technology in general and with BYOD programs in particular, especially if neither is approached with best practices in the development of the initiative.

The biggest and ongoing concern with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs is the inequity that can exist which is often not intentional but can easily be overlooked.  How do schools address the fact that not all students have devices? If the district does plan to provide devices for those students that do not have their own device, that will help, but then students that do have a device, but possibly of lesser quality than the schools, may decide not to bring in their device.  I want access to the better device, and let’s face it, borrowing the school’s device would be putting less mileage (or eating up storage) on my device. 

Another concern with any technology initiative is in the planning and preparation for the network.  While it is great that more and more schools finally have internet access and more of these schools with access are now supporting wireless devices with quality wifi service, there is a difference between having 5 iPads in your classroom and suddenly having 20 -25 devices that are all trying to access the same access point.  Even after you beef up your wireless access you then have to worry about what is being accessed over the internet. 

Sure, there are ways to filter improper content, and if students are simply uploading word documents to be submitted as reports to the teacher then everything will probably work as smooth as silk.  But when you ask a classroom full of students to search You Tube for a video of their favorite story, you are about to see how quickly a bullet train can turn into a snail in a typical US school district.

BYOD will also bring its own challenges to the classroom teacher.  Whether they are comfortable with this role or not, you will quickly become the technology help desk for up to 20 different tech devices in your classroom.  Let’s face it, not all devices are created equal, and while little Suzie with a brand new iPad Air will likely face few tech glitches.  When she does they can probably be easily addressed through a search on You Tube or the Apple website.  But little Johnny who brings in a brand name device you have never heard of, and that his father let him have because it was a free promo gift from his telecommunications company, you may face some serious problems when his device decides it doesn’t want to open the website you have asked all students to go to because it doesn’t have the proper drivers or plug-ins.  When you get right down to it, you need to have the right tool for the job, and not all devices are best for everything.  Reading on a device is different than typing up a 2-3 page paper. 

Finally, the biggest concern using technology in the classroom is the preparation and professional development provided to the teachers to prepare them for this new style of learning.  You cannot simply add a device that can take a student to almost anything in the world they would like to access, and expect them to not be distracted and tempted to search out what interests them.  If a teacher is not prepared for this possibility and how to manage a situation like that, you are setting them up for failure and frustration and all teachers deserve far less of that.  Teachers need and deserve the time and training to be experts in managing and instructing with the tools they are expected to use in their trade.

This post is actually an adaptation of the "Two Takes" opinion piece I was asked to write for Reading Teacher magazine which is published by International Reading Association.  You can find it in the January/February 2015 Issue on pages 14 and 15.  I was limited to around 600 words and this is a subject I could go on about for quite a while and even argue the other side of the topic.  I added a few photos and made a couple of small changes to what I submitted but it's basically the same.

December 4, 2014

Why Teachers Aren't Going Anywhere

So I found this video the other day on You Tube, and it might be one of the best at explaining why Technology, Video, the internet or any other "thing" will not revolutionize education. 

TV, iPads, worksheets, textbooks or the best lecture in the world won't do it either.  Sorry to say it, but if teaching continues as it often has, student learning will continue on the same trend it always has as well.  Because it isn't what teachers know, what a book has on its pages, or even what is shared via an amazing video or podcast.  It is what the learner does with the information that matters.  Do they just hear it?  Do they just write it down on a worksheet?  Do they just read it?  If the student doesn't interact with the learning, if the students doesn't take it and use it, use it incorrectly, and then use it again, it probably won't stick.  The more they interact with it, the deeper they learn from it, the better they understand it.  It's a long and arduous journey.  Just ask Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

So I know that some teachers have begun to worry that they will be replaced by technology tools, or websites, or who knows what in the future, but I don't think they are going anywhere.  But if we really want to make a difference, then there may be some things we can change to make a bigger impact.  I can't think of a better argument for hands on authentic tasks, Project Based Learning, and the maker movement, than the simple truth outlined in the video.  If we want to prepare kids for the real world and the changing economy and job market our students will face, then we need to change the way we have always done things, and take some risks that say it's not about standardized tests, its about learning by doing.

December 3, 2014

Culture of Compassion

I was watching the movie "The Blind Side" recently on ABC Family, and it made me reflect a little. I love the movie, yeah it's about football, but far more importantly, it's about kindness, compassion, empathy and looking beyond differences to see what a person really needs to make it in this world. A football scholarship? Someone wealthy enough to buy them clothes? To buy them a truck? Nope. Sometimes, it takes just one person to show that they care, that they will go out of their way to make sure you are cared for and supported. This family took in a young man to make sure he felt cared for and they grew to love him, and he loved them.

This photo displays one of the quotes from the movie that just about brings me to tears everytime I hear it.  Why? Because it is the simple truth of the whole movie.....and maybe it's the simple truth of being an educator as well.

What is the connection to my Tomah family? These are some of the same actions I see from my co-workers almost everyday. Teachers going out of their way for students in a variety of ways. I know it's our job to help students learn reading, math, science and social studies, and yes, we do that too, but I am always filled with pride when I see the extras we do for our students as well. What's unusual is that I don't think any of my teachers see it as an extra. It's just what they do.

They see a need, and they find a way to fill it. Whether it's a student in need of boots or a winter coat, a family in need of food, or a student that just needs a little more attention and love, they all find a way to be there for the kids. Going to their performances, their various athletic events, and just smiling when they see them around town. The kindness and compassion my teachers display is inspiring to me and more importantly it makes all the difference to our students.

October 12, 2014

First Impressions

First impressions mean a lot. When you are first getting to know someone you do all you can to give off a great impression. You are all smiles, you are dressed smart (to steal a great term from my British friends), you use your best vocabulary and even try to give a firm handshake, all in the hopes of making that positive first impression.  We want people to connect to us and say, "Wow, this person seems great! If nothing else, I want to get to know them even more."

But, what is the first impression schools often give to students?  We often welcome them to school, by taking the first day to go through all of the behavior expectations we have.  While I support PBIS and think it is a good thing, this is simply code for teaching kids the rules.  I like that we now try to do it in a positive way and we focus on teaching the expectations, not just telling them the expectations. I'm just not sure it is the "welcome" to school we should use to be starting the year.

Sometimes, often as soon as the second day of school or at least by the second week of school, we begin by assessing students. We are trying to benchmark them to determine their academic skills at the start of the year so we can determine where each student is academically and then we can determine what each child needs for intervention and support.  This is code for, Testing.  We hit kids with numerous tests to determine fluency, comprehension, writing, computation, numeracy and problem solving skills. 

Some of these assessments are given twice because we are mandated to give some tests, but sometimes schools prefer a different test that has a higher bar of expectation, or looks at the same skills slightly differently, or produces a clearer set of data. Some of these assessments are computerized and some are given by a teacher in a one to one environment. Some are based on speed and some can take up to an hour to complete.

This is all pretty normal probably for most of the schools across America. Although it may not be so normal to those 5-10 year old kids. I know there are some schools that have broken this mold, and I am not here to say who does it great or right, but instead to have us reflect on what is common practice, and see if we can empathize with students and to see if we can create a start to the year that would help kids get excited and feel the joy of starting a new year instead of creating anxiety of tests and assessments.

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas for how to address this concern.  Hold off on benchmarking until October?  Make the first day all about welcoming students, meeting teachers, meeting friends, having a special lunch?  Hold an assembly where students hear about all the special events coming up this year, a video of highlights from the previous year?  Please share your ideas and help me recreate the start of the school year I would like to see students have.

October 9, 2014

Personal Reboot

No, I'm not broken.  No need for a new me.  I just need to reboot the system and get myself back on track.  I've gotten away from blogging....I've gotten away from engaging and sharing on social media, especially Twitter chats, well, at least as much as I used to.  I've radically reduced my professional reading except for occasional articles and blog posts.  I have been asked to write articles and contribute to books and I have been reluctant to say yes.  I am supposed to be a Connected Ed mentor in my state and I am even supposed to help bring a social media lounge presence to our larger state conferences.  What kind of mentor for social media use doesn't tweet, blog or share articles?

So it's time for a reboot. Time to get back into my blog, connect on social media, and start sharing what I have learned and sharing the experiences I have daily.  I have sat down to write almost 20 blog posts in the past 3 months and I have been unable to complete any of them.  I lose focus, or motivation or I just lack the confidence that they will be any good. So tonight I am just cranking out this one post to break the ice and then I'm sitting back down to get going on an article I agreed to do 3 weeks ago, but haven't started.

I am also rebooting a couple of other goals I have set for myself, but have let fall by the wayside.  The diet is back on, and the exercise is back on.  I am fed up with my lack of motivation on these two parts of my life and it is time to get serious.  I am way too knowledgeable about both things and it is time to face my lack of intestinal fortitude and give myself the kick in the pants I need.  I have a herniated disc in my back and a knee that reminds me I should have quit football after high school.  But both of those things will just get worse by laying on a couch or sitting at a desk, so it's time to "get real" with myself and get started with living like I should.

No, I won't go crazy with exuberance and quit all sugars, or take off on a 5 mile run tomorrow (like I could even run 1 mile), but it is time to get started and to make a plan I can begin, continue and ultimately reach some serious goals with.  I won't be sitting down at the computer each night to start working on a new book, but it is time to set aside time to write and reflect again, and not just stay in the office to get paperwork done, just to come home and plop down on the coach with the TV on and a phone in my hand (really a phone, not a beer like in the picture).

So, I have to thank Connected Educator month again. In the past it has helped me to connect to some amazing people. People that have taught me a great deal, and people that have become lifelong friends.  People that taught me to value myself more and friends that convinced me I can do anything I set my mind to if I just give it my best effort. This year, it reminded me that I am a mentor and role model, and somehow I had forgotten those duties. No more!

Whew! Okay.....deep breath......let it out slow.......

July 1, 2014

Principals are People too

I have connected with thousands of amazing educators on Twitter.  It's been such a wonderful tool for connecting with teachers and administrators that I may have never met. There are a few though, some that I have met and some that I have not, that have become dear friends. We have taken that connection we made on Twitter and deepened by meeting up at conferences, google hangouts and most recently by having long and personal conversations on Voxer.  
Voxer is a new walkie-talkie type app that works on smartphones and iPads.

But this post isn't about the new app we use, this is about the idea that we came up with to all create a blog post about the same subject.....or at least the same title. We have been chatting and sharing personal stories, challenges and successes for quite a while.  Being that we are all administrators we agreed that it was almost therapeutic for us to connect with each other as we have all felt the withdrawal and loneliness that comes when living on Admin Island.

Oooh, the job isn't as bleak as that term makes it sound, but let's face it, there is usually only one administrator (sometimes two) in a building, and they are responsible for everyone else in the building. They are "the boss" and that always changes the relationships with others, no matter your attempts to build trust. I am not a believer in building walls between people trying to accomplish the same goals, but sometimes they are already there, and it takes time to tear them down. So sometimes, it seems like there is no one else to go to with your complaints, concerns, questions, etc.  And sometimes it feels like you have no one to go to with your own "personal" concerns, complaints and questions.  That friend that you can turn to and share things with, knowing they will support you no matter what.  Sometimes, they just listen and sometimes they share some solid advice, and somehow they know which you need.

I was in need of this group this year more than they may ever know.  I took a job this year that was 2 hours away from where my family lived. I usually get back every weekend to see them, and sometimes I will even drive down after school to catch a basketball game or track meet, but it has been difficult.  I have been fortunate that my staff has been wonderful and has invited me out to social gatherings, and most of them have opened up to me personally to help create some great bonds of friendship and trust. But, it is just not the same when you are the only administrator in the building, and when your spouse isn't even there to go back and chat with at night (I'm glad she has Voxer on her phone as well).

Of course when you are a 6'3" guy that looks to be built for the purpose of unloading Viking ships, well.... people tend to think you aren't in need of much warmth or support for something like missing your family a little. Besides, I tend to wear a big smile and try to keep my spirits high in hopes that it will rub off on others. What I appreciate about my staff is that they have reached out to me, they are wanting to connect and get to know me as well. But this group of peers from Voxer knows me, and they hear me when I share the tough aspects of the job, or even of my situation of being away from family, and they have been the best supporters I could ask for. They can relate to many of these situations I share with them. None of this post is a complaint, on the contrary it is a compliment. To the friends I have found in my new district, to those I have connected with on twitter, they are all wonderful people with bold ideas, fresh perspectives and twists on things I have tried, but that I had not considered. You all have been a huge help to my growth as an educator. But the friends that I have connected with via Voxer, those friends that have been there for me daily, I am so thankful for your support and reminding me that Principals are People too and that I can be weak, make mistakes, tell bad jokes, be sad, and still be respected and appreciated. Thank you for making a tough year bearable. Actually, thanks for making a tough situation, enjoyable and filled with laughs and support.

Make sure to check out the other blog posts with this title from this amazing group of friends that I have connected with.  You can find their blogs at the links below:

Tony Sinanis - Leading Motivated Learners  
Jessica Johnson - Reflections from an Elementary Principal  
Curt Rees - I know this much is true   
Melinda Miller - The Principal Blog   
Amber Teamann - Technically Yours, Teamann  
Joe Sanfelippo - FC Superintendent
Leah Whitford - Reflections of a Learner  
Jay Posick - Jay's Journal

June 30, 2014

Are You a PFD?

Whoa! Just found this post that I apparently had ready to submit back in May. Sorry for the tardy posting, but I may as well share it now.

Ok, so how many of you thought this was going to be a techie post about using Adobe?  Yeah, it said PFD not pdf. A Personal Flotation Device.  It's that time of year. No, not boating season. It's that time of year when educators feel like they are drowning. Assessments, grades, deadlines, field trips, planning for next year, summative evaluations, IEP meetings, creating class lists, summer school, poor behaviors on the rise and cleaning out classrooms.  There is just a myriad of activities taking place in May.  All this flurry of activity can create a lot of stress. 

As a matter of fact I don't usually blog in May.  I worry that I will let emotions take over and instead of sharing something useful or something that is a worthwhile reflection for myself,that it would most likely just end up being a venting session or rant. Not many people want to read about someone else's rant (especially in May) and I am not sure that I grow that much as an educator by just venting my frustrations.  So, as I started to reflect on those feelings and how my staff may feel in May as well, I started to ask myself, "How can I be a servant leader and help my staff through these tough days at the end of a school year?" 

Teachers need something or someone to keep their spirits up.  To keep the mood light and buoyant. To help them stay positive and supportive toward their students during this stressful time of year. While the building leader has plenty to do at the end of the year as well, it may be most important for that leader to help keep spirits up and the culture positive as things wind down and deadlines loom. Leaders, I say to you, be the model in May and find a way to keep the spirit of your school positive and filled with joy.  Find a way to make these last weeks fun and light, or at least as light as you can, so that people can face the coming summer break with a smile and not just a sprint to their cars on their last day.