Taking a Deep Breath!

There are so many times throughout my days (and nights) that I think-you should write about that-and then the thought leaves my brain and I’m off and running in another direction. My life is so rich right now that I wanted to reflect on some of it…and also alleviate some of the anxieties my ED483 students are feeling with regards to teaching, learning, and keeping up with it all!

First of all, let me tell you, I am blessed with a dynamic group of learners this semester! 46 students in two sections of Education Media and Technology let me share my passion and enthusiasm for 21st Century learning on a weekly basis. They humor me with their patience as I explain new technology tools like a child on Christmas morning. I know, at times, my love for this stuff explodes with a gusto that can make some people take a step back and I have reflected on that a number of times, telling myself that “my mission is not everyone else’s mission”, yet after a comment by friend and colleague, Charlie Yeager, about my ability to “sell it” when it comes to the use of technology in the classroom, I sometimes think that my enthusiasm is exactly what people need. So, I guess as I run through this course for the first time, I am not going to check my enthusiasm at the door–I’ve been at this game long enough to understand that enthusiasm for a subject, a passion for something is really what life is all about–and in teaching, if you don’t have it, your students won’t ever get it!

These same students–impress me with their ability to take new things and make them their own. Now, mind you there are a few students that are still anxiously skeptical and not quite buying in to it all, but those that are–are in hook, line and sinker. More than anything else, I feel like I am accomplishing something if a student takes a concept or tool I have introduced and uses it his/her own way, for her/his own purpose. Tools will come and go, activities can be designed and redesigned, but truly taking something and incorporating it into your personal learning experience is (I believe) one of the surest ways of becoming a life-long learning in this digital age. Want to see for yourself? Their blog roll, delicious names and twitter accounts are beginning to take shape–some really good networks are being formed!

Another factor that brings a new perspective to my learning this semester is that I am fortunate enough to have two of my colleagues enrolled for graduate credit in this pre-service course. They are veteran teachers who are Upper Peninsula Writing Project TC’s as well as members of our NHS MI-Champions project. Having their “real-world” voices in our class is a gift. I think that it is a good model for the soon-to-be teachers as they contemplate their own efforts to become life-long learners. Helen and Vickie are two of Negaunee’s finest teachers and I am flattered that they have elected to be part of my learning network! (Be sure to follow the links to their wikis that they have developed, just click their names!) Their desire to take their teaching and personal learning into the digital age is refreshing. They are always thinking, asking questions and most of all doing things to improve the learning experiences of their students.

So the uber-geek enthusiasm I bring to a classroom often projects me forward at speeds, I fail to recognize, are sometimes at a pace that may be a bit difficult for those new to this digital world. I’d like to provide the excuse that if they could jump inside my head and see all of the things I have yet to show them, they too, would clamber for me to move quickly. However, I also understand that I have been traveling this super-highway for a few years and I have to remember that the excitement and passion I have developed was cultivated along the way, not cast upon me in one workshop, at one conference or even during one course. I am going to implement a bit of the “less is more” philosophy when it comes to the actual introduction of “tools”, but will continue to feed their brains and lure them in with sights, sounds, articles, and opinions that illustrate the bigger picture of learning today. If they can walk away from my course with some tools that take them into a world of people, a network of educators, devoted to making education relevant to the needs of children then I feel the future of our schools will be a better place.

25 Random Thoughts on Education

A very popular Facebook note, 25 Random Thoughts About Me, has spread throughout the social network, allowing friends a crazy glimspe inside of each other’s personal lives. Writing them allows people to share random information with each other. Some of my friends have used it as an outlet to let people know some of the more difficult or joyous times in their lives as they are reconnecting with classmates and friends who have been out of their lives for quite some time. Others use it as a vehicle to proclaim their blessings. Touting the wonder of having supportive friends and family to lean on during the chaotic lives we lead. Reading them is fun, pure fun, and great way to start conversations, observe similar experiences and bring compassion to each others lives.

I thought it would be fun to create a more focused list–one that captures the passion of educators. Teachers everywhere have so much to think about. I am sure within all of them there are 25 Random Thoughts on Education. Here are mine:

1. I only had to caculate grades by hand for my first year of teaching; after that we used a computer based grading system.

2. I’ve never been able to write really well on a chalkboard; despite years of practicing at home.

3. Textbooks should be used as a tool; not the main source of content for a class.

4. A school building with a postivie atmosphere is as critical to the success of the students than any standardized curriculum.

5. Standardized tests are painful to administer. I apologized to my students when they were taking the MME last year. We shouldn’t be doing that to kids.

6. The spirit of teaching will never die; despite all of the turmoil and conflict within the system.

7. Teachers don’t really care about money; they would rather have the learning environment support their practice.

8. It bugs me that our district still buys spiral bound grade books even though we have been digital for the better part of 13 years.

9. Every teacher should attend conferences by and belong to professional organizations; especially those that emphasize teaching and learning across the curriculum.

10. Technology has the power to transform education; that said, it is only a TOOL and teachers are needed to faciliate learning far more than they have ever been in the history of education.

11. After 14 years, I still get butterflies the night before school starts in the fall.

12. Connecting with students, watching them grow from immature, whiny freshmen to thankful, compassionate seniors is one thing I will never grow tired of.

13. You do not need to learn things because, “It is going to be on the test”!

14. If you love to learn, your students will love to learn. It is all in the presentation–sell it to them! Passion breeds passion.

15. Tests and quizzes should be a “dip-stick” for assessment of learning. Projects and production, creation and collaboration are the true tests of learning.

16. We cannot assess technology skills through standardized means. The sooner we stop trying, the less frustrated everyone will be.

17. Taking and passing an online course does not necessarily = mastery of technology skills.

18. Faith. It is all about faith.

19. If teachers stop learning, they will become as obsolete as the textbooks sitting on their shelves.

20. The development and integration of my personal learning network has been one of the most exciting, invigorating things I have done to increase my knowledge as an educator.

21. If you have never heard of or participated in the National Writing Project‘s Summer Institute, you should. Hands down–the single best form of professional development. Our local site is the UPWP.

22. Inquiry and Reflection. Two critical practices of a good educator.

23. I love the August and September and the unveiling of the school supplies aisles in the local stores. Despite my obsession with technology, I love a good pen, freshly sharpened pencils and brightly colored sticky notes.

24. I’m in love with my profession; despite all that is ahead of us, it is an amazing time to be in education!

25. Favorite all-time quote:

“I’ve come to the frightening conclusioin that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.”–Dr. Haim Ginott

Another reflection…always learning!

This is a reflection on my class for Dr. June Schaefer, PYTD The Adult Learner.  We met on a chilly Saturday in January, the 24th to be exact.  I am continuing the practice of posting my reflections here after I email them to Dr. Schaefer.  Writing is writing afterall…and it keeps me blogging! 😉  Too lazy to add any links tonight…maybe I’ll come back to it…or maybe not!

Returning to the cohort group this weekend was exciting.  It was fun to see the new faces added to our group and reconnect with those from the previous semester.  As a learner, I value the social connections, community we are building and the diverse experiences of each member of this cohort.  The “conditions” in which we each learn are different, yet as veteran educators, we understand the importance of pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones.  Since the end of class on Saturday, I have had several email exchanges with classmates communicating about email lists, the wikispace and our overall learning goals.  It is comforting to work with a group of people open to change and willing to try new things.

I enjoyed the model of learning that took place during our class time. Taking time to really get into the heart of the book while in a small group was meaningful.  Much of our conversation circled around learners in education; teachers as learners, but we found ourselves trying to make connections outside of education.  What would adult learning look like in the business world, industry, government?  Teachers as learners are important to understand, but as administrators you also have to work with support staff, secretaries, janitors, maintenance and coaches who may not be teachers.  Sometimes their learning conditions will vary greatly from a traditional “teacher learner”.  It was interesting to have these discussions.

I felt rushed through the day.  I wanted to stop more, reflect more, but when we are together it seems as though we always have so much to “get through”.  What a challenge it is to put together a program across such a great geographical span!  Hats off, June, for rising to this challenge.  At times, I crave a more traditional setting. Yet understand the fact that this is the reality we must work with.  I hope that we can continue to work together to improve communications both during and outside of class.  I’m convinced that taking some time to learn the technologies involved will help us improve communications for the remainder of this cohort program.  It is a worthwhile investment.

One aspect of learning that we discussed in our small group was the difference between theory and practice and the roles each play in teaching and learning.  Theory is the idea of how it is supposed to work, while practice is how it actually functions.  As a special education teacher, this is my world.  In theory, students have a set area of needs, we write goals, work on them, they make progress and achieve their goals.  In practice, that isn’t always the case; however without the theory, we wouldn’t be able to even attempt the practice, thus never even having a remote possibility of achieving any goals.  The question arose: Why should we even care about theory? I believe it is the foundation of learning the practice of your trade.  It is why as preservice teachers we learn about educational philosophy, learning theories and child development.  Without the big picture, we cannot begin to build the puzzle; the pieces would be randomly placed and the picture could remain undefined.

Looking forward, the creation of a professional development program is an exciting task.  I think that the lack of planning that goes into the theory of professional development in schools results in a practice that is looked upon by teachers in a negative way.  It was interesting that so many people referenced the Writing Project as a good model of professional development.  I was doing a search the other day for positive professional development models and the Writing Project model was referenced in several blogs.  The essential elements of community building, having a strong mission, a clear vision and structured protocol all contribute to the success of the model.  Much of our plan in our group will be focused and adapted from things learned through our experiences with the Upper Peninsula Writing Project.  It is interesting to think about the entire project as a whole and how they have successfully replicated the model across the nation.  I love listening to Suzanne tell the story of how Jim Gray came to Marquette when the UPWP was rebirthed and kept insisting over and over again to “do what he said!” Essentially he was telling her to follow the protocol, even though at that time he didn’t use that terminology.  “It works! You’ll see.” He told her repeatedly.  Learning through the study of best practices.  Learn from those who have experienced success, repeatedly.  That’s a good lesson.


An thus begins another semester of learning…

This post is in reflection to two articles sent by my professor, Dr. June Schaefer from Northern Michigan University.  The articles, Collaborative Inquiry by Jane L. David and Moving the Team From Collegial to Collaborative by Carrie VanAlstine were launch pads for a variety of different thoughts.  The questions Dr. Schaefer wanted us to answer/discuss were: 1.  How we defined collaborative inquiry/learning for educators, using information from the articles and our own experiences.  and 2. She asked for some examples of PD opportunities from our personal experiences that we felt were good examples of the models presented in the articles.  Specifically she would like us to start our focus on adult learners. The following is my reflection…

Creating a sense of community within your classroom is maximum priority if you want students to engage in the learning process.  If students do not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions, there will be very little room for growth and understanding.  If within your classroom there is fear of making a mistake or giving the wrong answer, students will not be able to stretch their limits and reach beyond their abilities.  As teachers we understand this concept.  As administrators it seems sensible that we create an environment within our facilities that establishes a fertile foundation for learning, growth and understanding.

Teaching has historically been a field of isolation.  We teach separately within our classrooms with very little time to even speak with others within our field.  The token five minute hallway conversations aside, there is often very little professional discussions held during the regular school day.  This is not the ideal environment for collaborative learning. The very structure of our school day, the bells, the class periods, the single prep period or recess break, does not provide for more than the occasional bout of collaboration.  In recent years the concept of teaming, whether it be through a co-teaching arrangement or a grade-level shared prep period, has increased the opportunity for collaboration, but has not fully engaged teachers in the process.  Teachers who are members of school improvement teams, student assistance teams, and grade level content teams all meet regularly, but often they haven’t established a solid protocol for the collaborative process. The lack of a protocol can often result in an inefficient use of time and an increase in frustration. My work with the Upper Peninsula Writing Project has provided me opportunity to both study and practice the idea of collaborative inquiry and community building.  It is the philosophy of the National Writing Project that in order to become better teachers of writing, teachers must become better writers.  As part of the “protocol” of the Summer Teaching Institute, the idea of community building is a critical factor.  As a writer if you do not feel comfortable sharing your writing, it is very difficult to improve your writing abilities. Similar in concept to the Writer’s Workshop, teachers from the large group are placed in smaller groups after the directors have a chance to assess personalities, temperament, learning styles and interests.  It is within these groups that teachers collaborate on the writing process.  There is an established protocol with guidelines from the larger group, that are tweaked in the smaller group based on the personal preferences.  It works well.  Protocols are used throughout writing project activities. From writing marathons to teaching demonstrations, the structure, replicated throughout the National Writing Project within the individual sites has resulted in repeated success.

The concept of professional learning communities (PLC) is one that has exploded through the increased use of technology.  With the internet we are able to connect with people across the globe.  Instantly.  We are able to organize, manage, filter and decipher information rapidly and in ways that meet both our personal and professional needs.  Our professional learning communities can extend well beyond our local school buildings.  We have access to an abundance of professional resources and are able to connect with other teachers from around the world that are faced with similar challenges, who may be exploring the same concepts or creating projects, activities or learning environments that align with ours.  It is an exciting time to be in education.  Although slightly different, the concept of creating our own personal learning networks (PLN) is one that allows teachers, administrators and even students to take control of their own learning.  The creation of a network of learners establishes a belief in and a commitment to life long learning.  As teachers, we can model this learning for our students while we encourage them to create networks of their own.  If schools or local areas establish professional learning communities and that contribute to and enhance their personal learning networks, our teaching environment and our students learning environment become explosive arenas for growth and change.

Whether it be a professional learning community or a personal learning network, both provide opportunity to assess student work and reflect upon teaching practices and the impact those practices have on student success.  Any time you can engage in conversation, protocol or a learning activity there will be opportunity for personal growth.  However, teachers often lack the skills (or is it just time!!) to reflect upon best practices or participate in inquiry studies. The use of a protocol helps guide groups of learners in an effective way as they work towards their goals.  Having an established agenda, making sure team roles are defined and meetings held on a regular basis are ways that a protocol can increase teacher interaction and understanding.  The inclusion of technology, the use of blogs to reflect and discuss, a social network to connect with others across a region and perhaps a wikispace to organize and filter information, greatly increases the effectiveness of a learning community.  Time is so precious.  Multiple meetings can disrupt schedules, interfere with student learning, and can become inconsistent due to varying schedules or geographic locations.  The web provides an accessible gathering place for participants in discovering what works best, what others are trying and how to effectively find information that supports their teaching and learning.  Geography becomes a non-issue as we are able to connect with people, in other states, regions or countries.

Yesterday I followed live microblogging on Twitter of people in attendance at FETC.  I caught a link and watched live video presentation via Ustream of Hall Davidson from the Discovery Education Network.  This weekend I can learn from friends and members of my network that are attending the EduCon conference in Philadelphia.  I can read their blogs, ask them questions, engage in conversations, listen to podcasts and view pictures of their experiences at a conference I was unable to attend.  (They even have session protocols outlined! ) The combination of face-to-face collaboration with the connectedness on the web, allows educators to learn and grow in ways that weren’t possible even five years ago.

Making connections with people in our world is a powerful way to learn and discover.  Once our educational system embraces this concept and creates an environment conducive to community buliding and collaborative learning, we will make great strides in improving, not just the learning in our schools, but the quality of living in our country.

Random thoughts amid HOLIDAY madness!

Time to write.  HA! I look at this tab on my Firefox browser every morning and think–do it, just write something.  Anything.  I want to write, just never seem to find the time.  I have read a lot of blog posts lately.  Keeping my reader down to zero most nights.  (Back up to 83 this morning…but who’s counting?)  So I read a post last week about blending a blog between the personal and professional parts of your life.  That has been a hang up for me.  As a member of the National Writing Project and the tech liaison for the Upper Peninsula Writing Project (side note: the link to this site takes you to the UPWP site; it’s at the top of my to-do list for revision…just another thing…) there is a huge part of me that wants to use this space to journal, reflect and create writings based upon my personal life.  Chronicle the magic of my children, capture their voice, those comments and phrases that you swear you will never forget.  I have done some of that here.  I like that it is all in one place.  In my busy life as a single mom, less is more.  Keeping my writings all in one place prevents me from accumulating a pile of journals with one or two or three entries.  The other part of me wants this to be my venue for my professional life.  My platform for reflections, predictions and new ideas.  The beauty of it is…it can be both.  I can write poetry, post snapshots of my daily life and still post pieces I think contribute to the profession of teaching.  I just have to do it.  Steve Dembo’s 30 days project was inspiring, yet I only managed to pull off 2 or 3 days.  The wonderful thing, as he said, is that it is there, waiting, as a resource–anytime we have time to use it.  Maybe January 1st? or maybe March 15th? Who knows.  It will come- the time.

So where’s the random thoughts?

I received an email from our co-director regarding some health problems she is having.  I’m concerned.  Enough that I am hardly thinking about it.

My children giggled endlessly when our Christmas Elves brought them “Noise” putty last night…aka Fart Putty.  They were those silly giggles, playing off one and other…each time sending them into fits of laughter.  Lots of smiles. Lots of dreams–their imaginations astound me.

With their laughter I am comforted.  I know that despite some of the heartache in their lives, they are fine.

My students are taking the ACT/MME and making up a PLAN test today…random kids trying to increase their scores.  UGH–I want to say–don’t do it…forget it.  What matters most is how hard you work, how you create your own opportunities and seek out learning whenever you can.  A test score does not determine your worth, your value or your potential for success.  Those thoughts lead me to other thoughts about how we are preparing our students.  I loved these two blogs posts from Will Richardson and Karl Fisch. Both of them make me want to read more, learn more and write more.  I can’t help but think of my own children.  What can I do outside of our current school setting in order to prepare them?

I’m not done Christmas shopping.  List is sitting right in front of me as I type.  As I explained to my best friend last night at 10 o’clock. (She was returning my call as I put in a request for a black pair of dress shoes for my daughter.  Her’s were all too small!) I am off my game this year.  I am usually uber-prepared.  Everything ready for each of the next steps of the crazy holiday dance.  Not this year.  Off my game.

Last year this time I was infatuated with a new love.  He has since grown in to a dear, tried and true friend.  My wish for him in the new year is that he finds peace in his heart so that love in his home may again grow.  Simple, but oh so necessary. His talent lies in finding great music for me…(he has his own playlist!) and inspires me to work harder at the gym!

It is cold out.  Really cold lately in Negaunee.  Snowshoeing yesterday felt great…but it was cold.  I want to learn how to skate ski this winter.  Add to my winter activities, of which I believe we cannot possibly have enough.  Winter is about 75% of the year in this neck of the woods.  Might as well make the best of it.

One of my good friends lost his grandfather this week.  A huge presence in his life.  I’m sad for him as he says goodbye to this man who provided him with much love and inspiration.  I’m grateful for my grandmother.  Looking forward to spending time with her this Christmas.

Speaking of family…I love Facebook and how it has reconnected me with cousins all over the country.  Not just cousins, I gues,s but important people in my life that I have lost touch with.  Connections are powerful.   I think that people that haven’t experienced the connections that social networking sites provide cannot (nor should not) contribute their feelings as to their value or harm. There is something powerful in this crazy world knowing that people care; that people are feeling, doing, experiencing the same things (both good and bad) that you are.

Ending the madness? Simplify.  I have vowed to simplify.  Take each day as it comes.  My kids will get more fruit in their stockings.  We will play more games.  Slow down.  Color and paint more.  There will be less presents under the tree, but more of the spirit in our home.  The need for that is greater than any battery operated toy or new fangled object. I think we will pull out albums, look at pictures, watch movies from when they were “little” and spend more time playing with our cousins.  Life is good. Really good.

The Toy Box Inside Steve’s Brain

Advanced Educational Leadership
Dr. Dennis Stanek
The Toy Box Inside Steve’s Brain

Sometimes you find yourself at a place in the universe where everything is aligned just perfectly.  You stumble upon information you didn’t realized existed.  Opportunities present themselves at just the perfect moment.  A speaker, a book, a conversation, a conference, a class–all center around central topics and a theme is born.  That was my life in the month of September.

The two books I read, Toy Box Leadership and Inside Steve’s Brain , both focused on central themes of design, human connections and user experience.  Before this class started, I read Daniel Pink‘s A Whole New Mind and was also able to attend his speaking engagement on  campus.  One of his main themes was design and ingenuity.  He also stressed human connections, the ability to see the big picture and business’ ability to do something more for their customer.  So I found myself reading three amazing books within a short time period, seeing and meeting the author in person and participating in class discussions about the future of education and just what it takes to be an efficient and effective leader.  All of this weaved together to practically put my brain on overload.  I was able to see things differently and make connections among the text that reinforced my beliefs.  Then I got an opportunity to learn at one of the leading companies of the 21st century–Google.  All of this within weeks of reading these books, studying the history of great companies and exploring leadership possibilities.  Those weeks–were amazing and I felt a surge of knowledge and understanding within the core of my brain.

Inside Steve’s Brain, by Leander Kahney, is a biography of a great visionary.  Steve Jobs, Apple Corporation’s CEO,  has had (and continues to have) the innate ability to predict the future–especially when it comes to the types of technology the average person will buy, use and enjoy.  Kahney also wrote The Cult of Mac, which happens to be one of my favorite books.  In full disclosure, I am a Mac addict and find the whole company intriguing.  Even before I read this book, I was constantly amazed at how Mac products captivate a cult-like following.  It is even more apparent and understandable after reading this book.  Steve Jobs is a leader.  His strategies are, at times, unorthodox, but the bottom line is he gets results.

In the book Toy Box Leadership , Ron Hunter and Michael E. Waddell, Jr. write of not gluing your LEGOS together, that anticipating the future and that change it sure to occur.  They speak of pulling with courage and vision that allows your company to grow.  “Until a communicator with a passionate vision challenges us to do something great together, many times we struggle to find a meaningful purpose.” (Hunter, Waddell, Jr., 2008) They talk about aspirations, how to encourage people around you to reach out further, farther than they have before.  Good leaders tell their staff what they can achieve, then they recognize their accomplishments at steps along the way.  Steve Jobs does this at Apple.  He has courage and is a risk taker.  He has a vision that allows him to lead a company that develops and designs things we didn’t even know we needed and now seemingly can’t live without.

Jobs has been called the Walt Disney of this era.  He took a small company called Pixar and made it one of the most profitable movie studios in the world.  He is able to pull the best, most creative and talented people together to make magic.  He has an innate ability to find the very best person for the job.  He is a task master who uses artful delegation.  Hunter and Waddell would use the analogy of Little Green Army men and say that the success is in the setup.  The idea of a sandbox and development of strategy, understanding who goes where, how things get done, who does it and the constant reassessment of the plan in relation to progress are strategies from Toy Box that Steve has inside his brain for sure.  Stories of harsh treatment of people and employee firing in elevators are told like urban legends.  However few have actually been found to have any validity.  Steve Jobs understands that in order for a business to be successful, you need to have the right people doing the right job–and most of all they have to do it! Kahney writes of Jobs ability to “face hard decisions head on”.  Jobs has the ability to say no when needed and understands that his job is to focus on what he is good at–and delegate the rest. When he was faced with rebuilding Apple in the late 90’s, he had to strip the company down to just a few products.  Their line, at the time, included printers, monitors and peripheral equipment.  He wanted to be really good at developing just a small amount of things.  Spreading the company too thin had proved to be unhealthy for Apple.

Hunter and Waddell use Weebles as a symbol for persistence.  This is definitely a characteristic of Steve Jobs.  Apple was almost dead.  Steve Jobs successfully administered CPR and now it is one of the most successful companies of the 21st century.  Steve Jobs also surrounds himself with experienced mentors.  He doesn’t seek it out in terms of direct advice, but studies great visionaries. He has almost a “mystical reverence” for innovative people.  He speaks of meeting with Dr. Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid.  Their meeting was profound.  Dr. Land said that he always new the Polaroid camera existed, that he could see it as if it were real and sitting right in front of him and that it was his job to make it become reality.  He could see it before it was there.  Steve Jobs related to this in that he felt the same way about the Macintosh.  “It was as if it always existed.” Both Jobs and Land, Kahney writes, had the ability to not invent products, but discover them.

Steve Jobs is without a doubt one of the mostinnovative leaders of the modern age.  His focus is always on the user experience and his stated goal from the beginning was to “create easy-to-use technology for the widest possible audience.  Elitism, perfectionism, passion, despotism, inventive-spirit, and total control have helped Steve Jobs in the phoenix-like rebirth of Apple.  This glimpse inside the company provides a good balance between the factual and the fictitious stories of legend.  It was the perfect book to read after Toy Box Leadership as I believe that the spirit of play is what sparked the desire to create, develop and invent within Steve Jobs.

Charter Schools and School Boards…more guest speakers!

This is the reflection I wrote after my School Policy and Governance class a couple weeks ago…I’m posting them here, in part to keep track of them, but also to put ideas out there and generate discussion after the fact among my classmates…

An important aspect of any good leader is his or her ability to understand their personal  strengths and weaknesses.  Leaders who are able to delegate tasks  to experts, while contributing their knowledge and experience to the task at hand are ones who understand the true definition of leadership.  Bringing in speakers to explain aspects of school policy and current trends in education is an excellent demonstration of practical pedagogy.  The speakers that shared their expertise with us on October 18th were well versed and obviously passionate about  their contribution to the educational system.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. North Star Academy is leading us up the staircase towards a new version of schools in the 21st century.  It is apparent that the ability to think differently, to be open to progressive trends and to see students first, is the driving force behind this school.  Battling the stigma of the “alternative school” mentality is a challenge, especially in a community that is so deeply rooted in traditional schooling.  I was excited to hear about their policies and programs.  I think they are getting it right.  They understand that we teach children, not subjects; that people are our business, not curriculum, discipline and policy.  Not that the latter three are not important–in fact, they understand that they are crucial to providing the structure through which the school is able to put the student needs’ first–they just seem to understand that the kids need to come first. They understand that how kids learn, the environment in which success is most possible, is number one on the list.  If we don’t understand and respect that, the rest is all just a bunch of binders, detention slips and rhetoric.  One of my favorite quotes from a podcast I recently listened to comes from Kevin Honeycutt.  He says the most important thing to remember when teaching–is that no matter how difficult it is–whether it be designing a lesson, creating an activity, assessing progress–it isn’t about us (as teachers), it is about them (the students).  This simple statement–It’s not about us: it’s about them–is one I have posted above my computer on a simple little sticky note.  It should be the mantra for each and every teacher.  Sure–creating and designing engaging lessons takes extra time, planning and hard work–but that is why we are teachers–to teach, not to take the easiest path.  As professionals we are obligated to continue to learn about best practices in teaching, no matter what the length of our prep period.  I think the core philosophies of North Star Academy are in alignment with this ideal.  It was refreshing (and inspiring) to hear about the opportunities they are providing for our community.

Sean O’Donnell was able to give us some insight and a behind the scenes glimpse into charter schools in Michigan.  Misunderstandings abound with anything new and different.  He provided us with good, clear information that is going to allow me to better communicate exactly how charter schools work.  It is such an interesting concept that has evolved in education and one that I think (and hope) will continue to evolve as it challenges all schools to step up and create successful learning environments for every student.  Understanding the differences between programs that are run by larger businesses versus those that are run from local boards and state funding helped me understand the opportunities that charter schools are able to provide.  Our local residents are soon going to  look for alternatives to public schools if they aren’t able to individulize instruction for students to a greater degree.  I think that a school like the Wilson Academy in Pontiac that attracts students from failing schools is a model for other charter schools to follow.  Schools like North Star Academy provide residents with options.

Within urban areas there are many options for our children.  Magnet schools that focus on specific interest areas are becoming more popular.  Education is moving so rapidly and children are exposed to greater amounts of content at earlier ages.  Why shouldn’t students at the age of fourteen or fifteen be able to learn and study at schools that are more intently focused on their area of interest?  This isn’t to say a well rounded education isn’t important, but in today’s world and the age of Google, how students interact and utilize information is becoming a necessary skill, one that supercedes the rote memorization of facts and information.  Charter schools are able to zero in on this skill and rebuild schools, the structure and inner workings, from the ground up.  If we are to see a true change in education, we must disrupt the current system and find new ways to see the big picture.  We must help people (parents, school board members, teachers, citizens) see schools in a different light.  It is not simply enough to have been “good enough for me” anymore.  We must be excellent learning spaces for the students of today, while always looking at tomorrow.

I’ve always been interested in the historical perspective when considering the role of school boards in education.  Understanding that schools were started by communities to provide education to the children of their members is important to keep in mind when considering the role of school board members today.  I have concerns with the fact that there are no educational requirements to be a school board member.  Medical boards, law review boards and even boards in the state certified plumbing and heating industry all have educational requirements for their board members.  As teaching has grown into a professional occupation, one that requires sound demonstration of good pedagogy and deep understanding of the science of learning, it seems as though school board members should, at the very least, hold some sort of post-secondary degree.  Their ability to understand policy, school law, sound educational practices and the foundations of educational curriculum seems, at minimum, critical to making good decisions as a member of the school board.  I was pleased to listen as Shelley Ovink and Paula Saari both indicated that they felt that school board members need to be educated on the current issues in education.  The information they shared with us in regards to the school board associations and the services they provide to local districts was helpful and enlightening.  It was interesting to hear them convey their passion and concern for issues that impact our local districts.

Reinforcing Fowler’s stance on policy and it’s importance it plays in schools, Saari and Ovink shared concrete examples of how policy effects procedures and overall operations within schools.  Their insight left me with many questions for our own school board.  I am curious as to how often they participate in the educational opportunities offered by the Michigan Association of School Boards. I am wondering just how well the flow of information is between the teachers, administration and school board members in the Negaunee district.  Often I seek Jim’s opinions and thoughts on issues.  After class on Saturday, I am thinking that the development of a communication system between teachers and the school board to share information would be a positive implementation into our current system.  Too often the only dialogue between teachers and the board is in regards to contractual issues and negotiations.  This isn’t always a positive interaction.  It would be nice if we could open up the lines of communication to encompass a discussion that allowed for a more positive relationship in order to improve student learning.  After all, once again, it’s not about us–it’s about them.

Leadership Thoughts

ED630: Advanced Educational Leadership
Dr. Dennis Stanek
Sara R. Beauchamp
As my five year old son entered school this fall, I was apprehensive.  He has a voracious curiosity and thirst for learning, yet somehow I knew he would not enjoy the traditional school setting.  His favorite thing to do is to build.  Creating new things from seemingly random objects is a task he can do for hours.  We have a recycle art box in our dining room.  Empty juice, butter, sour cream and yogurt containers sit waiting to be turned into doll house hot tubs, rocket boosters and robot feet. Cake mix, macaroni, and cereal boxes become sky scrapers, foundations and homes for Polly Pockets.  Using a glue gun and his imagination, he creates worlds and new inventions. Through play he is developing skills that will allow him to take the linear, organizational, sequential skills learned through traditional academia and combine them with the ability to see the big picture.  It has been no secret in the world of education that children learn best through play.  It is through play that we can engage them in the learning process.  It is our hook. In Toy Box Leadership, Ron Hunter, Jr.  and Michael E. Waddell take that concept one step further and take a look at how the seemingly simple toys of our childhood teach lessons that extend beyond play.  They guide us through the chapters allowing us to revisit the toys that allowed us the freedom to be creative, to problem solve, and build dreams.
Many of the concepts discussed in this book have always been core driving principles in my life.  The idea of building relationships, like in the LEGO chapter is one that is most recognizable through my work with the Upper Peninsula Writing Project.  It is a core belief of the National Writing Project that in order to teach writing in your classroom, you must first develop a writing community.  This sense of community allows writers to feel safe, secure and willing to open up.  Writing is a very personal exercise and it takes time to develop the trust to share it with others.  Good writers understand that it is only through sharing, collaboration and feedback that they can become better writers.  But first it starts with relationships, connections.  Three components of the LEGO concept that gave me a “light bulb” moment were the analogies of the misplaced, forced, isolated and unorganized bricks.  When building communities, it is important that everyone is where they need to be.  That they want to participate and that they feel needed.  Organization of the people you have in your company (or school) is critical to the big picture. Waddell suggest that we all understand that a single out of place brick can ruin an entire castle.  Leaders have to pay attention to these concepts.
Change does not just happen.  It takes leaders with vision.  Vision is the foundation for all change, all innovation.  The analogy of the Slinky Dog is brilliant.  People with vision are crucial to education.  It is so important in our field because things are always changing, moving, and growing.  The needs of our children are changing, now, more than any other time in the history of education.  If we don’t have leaders with vision, we will not grow as an institution.  If your principal or superintendent believes that it is sufficient to “always do what you have always done”, our schools are in serious danger.  Having a vision does not mean jumping on every bandwagon that comes our way.  It is understanding the core foundations of education and carrying them into the 21st Century to best serve the needs of our children.  It is about us, not about them. For me, the most powerful lesson of the Slinky Dog is that it is a tricky job to pull and be patient.  If you pull too quickly and get too far from the followers, then you are not a leader.  You are just a person out in front all alone.  As with the Slinky Dog if you pull too fast and too far, you will destroy the coils, the connections within the group.  The trick, Hunter says, is to pull and be patient.  Imagine the Slinky Dog for a moment.  Picture the physics of how the toy operates.  When you pull the dog along, the front gets out in front, then the back catches up, propelling the front forward again.  These bursts allow for growth within your organization.
Persistence.  Falling down is not the problem; it is what happens when you are laying on the floor.  Do you lie there and wait for someone to come along?  “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down” is a very recognizable advertising slogan from the 1970’s.  The truth is, they do fall down.  They just don’t stay there.  The power of positive thinking is a wondrous thing.  It enables your mind to think differently, changing your heart rate, your blood pressure and your overall feelings of worth.   Failure is the world’s best way to learn.  This is a good trait to possess if you are in a leadership role.  You will be faced with many challenges and ultimately fail at some of them.  If you are persistent and learn from your failures, you will be able to achieve all you are working towards.
Hunter and Waddell do a delightful job of organizing solid leadership principals in an easy to read format that makes us look at things from a different point of view.  The margins of my book are filled with notes and many key phrases are highlighted.  To me–that is a sign of a good read.  I took away concrete ideas and revisited ones that solidified my current philosophies.  This could easily be a companion book for Fulgrum’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The roots of human behavior are formed at such an early age.  Toys allow us to openly express ourselves in these early stages.  Leaders of every style should pick this book up and keep it close to their desks,  along side some of the very toys discussed in the book, to serve as a reminder to connect with people, be creative, stay true to their beliefs, strive for efficiency, pull, then be patient and get back up after they have fallen.