Thursday, August 27, 2015

Staff Evaluation Of Me

Last spring I read Work Rules by Laszlo Bock, who's the Senior VP of People Operations (Human Resources) at Google. It was an interesting read in many ways, but one particular take away for me was the need to ask more directly for feedback. Like everyone I, of course, get informal day-to-day feedback from the folks I work with, and more formal feedback from my supervising administrator. But that's not the same as specifically asking for feedback, so I decided to ask my colleagues to complete a google form at the beginning of this school year. (I've also posted a link to a Google Form for student feedback for me several places around the building but, so far, I only have one response. If I get some more I'll share that as well.)

When I sat down to create the form I quickly got into the weeds. I wanted specific feedback, yet when I tried writing specific questions I ran into two problems. I felt like the questions were both too "leading" and too "limiting", and to get at everything I wanted feedback on required so many questions that it made the survey way too long. So I eventually decided on a few open-ended questions that I hoped would get me some decent feedback but make the survey short enough that people would complete it.

Here's a screenshot of the survey.

Based on the suggestions in the book and some other things I've read, I decided to go with a simple ranking of 1 to 7, one question on what I do well, one on what I can improve on, and then the usual "anything else they want to add." I was hoping that this would give them enough to give me some valuable feedback without getting too specific or too long. The downside, of course, is that's it's not very specific. They could take it anonymously or give me their name if they wanted to.

Here are the results. This is an exact copy of the actual results, except for the optional name column. In that column I replaced anyone's name with an asterisk for their confidentiality. So, as you look at that column, a blank space indicates that it was an anonymous response and an asterisk that they gave their name. (I received 62 responses. We have about 115 certified staff and about 40 classified staff.)
I think there are a couple of caveats (at least) to keep in mind when looking at these results. First, I think they will tend to skew positive, both because people who were ready to say nice things were more likely to take the time to complete the survey, and just because educators are generally nice. Second, I think you can't read too much into the results (positive or negative) because the questions were so open-ended. I think that's a trade-off I had to make, but still something to keep in mind.

So, I have my own thoughts on what the results mean, but I think I'll keep them to myself for now, because I'd love to hear what other people see in the results without influencing your thinking. So please leave your thoughts in the comments - it would probably be most helpful if you would focus particularly on the "things I could do better column", but all of it is fair game.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Citations Are Out Of Style

In addition to occasionally aiding and abetting torture, the American Psychological Association is perhaps best known in schools for the APA Style Guide, which is frequently used when writing about topics in the social and behavioral sciences. My high school uses the Modern Language Association's Handbook instead as the go-to source for writing research papers. Both guides are well-researched, thoughtful, and very helpful to students in the entire writing process. In my experience, however, they are most often the topic of conversation when it comes to using the proper formatting when citing your sources. Over the years many a student has spent countless hours trying to get the correct spacing, punctuation, and abbreviations/underlining/italics/etc. correct so that their paper wouldn't get returned to them all marked up in red ink (often without benefit of even getting feedback on the actual content of the paper). Thankfully, today we have many electronic resources like EasyBib that allow students to accomplish this task much more easily and much more accurately. We need to stop.

No, I'm not saying we should stop using tools like EasyBib. As long as we have APA or MLA-type requirements, then students should definitely take advantage of the tools to accomplish those requirements quickly and accurately. What I'm saying is that we need to stop using APA or MLA citation requirements altogether. That doesn't mean that I think students shouldn't cite their sources; they definitely should. What I'm suggesting is that both APA and MLA citations are legacy artifacts that are no longer the best way to accomplish the primary objectives of citation:
to uphold intellectual honesty (or avoiding plagiarism),[1] to attribute prior or unoriginal work and ideas to the correct sources, to allow the reader to determine independently whether the referenced material supports the author's argument in the claimed way, and to help the reader gauge the strength and validity of the material the author has used.[2](emphasis mine)
I'm curious. I wonder how many of the high school teachers (who I'm focusing on here, but it applies equally at other levels) have actually tracked down the original source of a citation on one of their student's papers? (Your time in graduate school doesn't count, I'm talking the day-to-day grading and feedback you give to your students.) I'm going to hazard a guess that it's not very often (if ever), and that the overall percentage of citations you have actually used to "determine independently whether the referenced material supports the author's argument in the claimed way" (in other words, read the entirety of the relevant section of the original source and reflect on it's relevance and applicability) is in the low single digits.

I suspect, instead, that the majority of a teacher's time is spent evaluating and providing feedback on the writing of the student (which it should be), and then the time spent on the citations is mainly on the formatting (which is not the purpose of citations). It's a prime example of "style over substance." I completely understand why the formatting requirements exist, by standardizing on and requiring precision in the formatting of the citations, we can ensure that the correct information is provided so that - should we want to - we can track down the source. But if we don't ever track down the source, what's the point?

So what's the alternative to APA or MLA? I think it's pretty simple and relatively obvious: it's the hyperlink. The vast majority of content today is available online, either the full text (or full images, audio, video, etc.), or a link to purchase the content in print form. Surely if the full content is online it makes more sense to link to the actual content so that the reader can investigate for themselves as opposed to a print citation that would require the reader to purchase or find the printed copy of the material. If the full content is not online, linking to where you can acquire that content seems to me to be much more useful than the print citation as well.

But what about sources that are not online, say out-of-print books? Well, first, I would question the "relevance of the work to the topic of discussion" if it's not available online. If a source is old enough that it doesn't exist online, and no one thinks it's important enough to make it available online even for purchase, then how relevant is it? What are the chances that the reader is going to be able track down this out-of-print, not-available-to-order online work, in order to accomplish the purposes of citation? In the rare case that a piece of material like this is relevant, we could have a simple, old-style citation, but I have to think this would be very rare.

What are the downsides to this system? I see two major complications. First, if you are linking to content online it is not always easy to identify the exact section (page, etc.) that you might be referencing (for instance, for a quote). Web "pages" often don't have "pages," they just scroll. And if you link to a way to acquire the material (say, to Amazon), then you run the risk that different copies ordered from that same link might be formatted differently, thereby changing the "page" the specific content you're referencing is on.

I think this is worth some discussion in the academic community, but I see several possible ways to address this. First, if the full content is online, the point is somewhat moot. If you are trying to find the exact quotation, you simply have to search the content. If the full content is not online and you are linking to a way to acquire the material, then perhaps we could come up with a brief citation protocol that could identify the relevant section of the material so that it could be easily found if anyone were to actually track it down in print. (Suggestion for publishers: figure out a system of both relative and absolute reference inside your published works to address this very issue.)

The second complication is a bit more challenging. As we all know, links sometimes change or disappear. I think this problem can really be divided into two scenarios, one of which is the most realistic one for most of us, which essentially makes the problem moot, and one of which is still very real but surmountable. The more realistic scenario, the one that the vast majority of students and teachers in high school will face, is that those citations are only going to be accessed for a very short time period. I don't know what the typical length of time for writing a high school paper is, but I would imagine it is less than six weeks from start to finish. A very high percentage of links that a student would use are still going to be valid six weeks later and students could confirm those links (and update if necessary) just before submitting their paper. The chances of those links becoming incorrect in the time it should take the teacher to assess the paper is very, very small.

For the rare occasions (at least in high school, but certainly not so rare as students get older) that you need your citations to be long-lived, then the possibility of links becoming outdated is most likely proportional to the age of the citation. (The older your citation, the more likely it becomes that the link becomes outdated.) Again, I think the academic community should discuss this, but I see several possible solutions, including tools that capture the web page at the time of the citation (Diigo, for one, or even just screenshots) or including a brief reference along with the link that would allow a dedicated reader to track down the material. (Suggestion for Amazon: figure out a way to make your links long-lived, so that even as things change existing links would still connect the user to an archive that shows them the relevant information.)

Is such a system perfect? Probably not, although I imagine if folks smarter than me started working on it it could be made pretty darn good. But, if our goal with citations is actually to further learning, to allow the reader to not only verify where we got our material but to explore further, then links are clearly superior to APA or MLA-type citations.

Just ask yourself, when is the last time you clicked on a link to learn more? When is the last time you tracked down the printed copy of an APA or MLA citation? Which system is more conducive to learning?

Saturday, August 01, 2015

A Teacher Walks Into A Bar

I don't drink alcohol, nor do I smoke tobacco. (Even though I live in Colorado, I don't smoke anything else, either.) In fact, I've always had antipathy towards both practices. I've fully supported the campaign to make smoking tobacco less socially acceptable, more inconvenient, and more expensive (with taxes that go toward smoking prevention efforts or health care costs). I would support a similar campaign with alcohol, given the tremendous negative behavioral outcomes associated with it's use, as well as the tremendous health care costs it creates. In fact, I would probably even support the reinstatement of Prohibition if it wasn't for the inconvenient fact that it doesn't work. Why am I sharing this information with you? So that we're clear during the rest of this post that I'm not writing this out of some defensive stance because I want to preserve the ability to do something I like, or even others' ability to do something they like.

This past spring our School Board, at the suggestion of district staff, approved a revision to Policy GBEE-R: Staff Use of District Technology. (The date at that link says as of this writing that it was last revised September 27, 2012, but I think that just hasn't been updated yet, since this was revised last spring.) Please take a few minutes to read it. Pay special attention to the portion in Section II: Social Media, under the heading "Guidelines," as this is the part that was recently revised (you'll have to scroll down a bit to find this part). Go ahead, I'll still be here when you get back.

There's a lot to think about here. Item 8 under Guidelines seems interesting:
8. Photographs relating to alcohol or tobacco use may be deemed inappropriate.
Really. Huh. So the district is saying that if a staff member engages in behaviors that are perfectly legal for adults and posts a photograph of it somewhere on their own personal social media, it may be "deemed inappropriate" by the district and
may form the basis for disciplinary action up to and including termination.
Termination. Wow. Thank goodness it's still okay for staff members to post "photographs" (I assume that includes "images", but it's not specific) of themselves smoking marijuana (or crack cocaine). Now, many of our staff members live in neighborhoods where our students live as well. I wonder if it's okay for them to smoke or drink in their backyards where they might be seen by students? To be safe, they should probably only do that within the confines of their own home, and be sure to pull the shades.

I wonder if the district is going to start firing staff members who get pregnant? After all, once a pregnant staff member starts showing, it's pretty darn obvious when they walk in the building that they've been having sex. Surely that could be "deemed inappropriate", especially if they post pictures of their pregnant selves on social media. And, of course, especially if they aren't married. There's even lots of precedence for this, since women teachers used to have to quit when they got pregnant and, before that, when they simply got married. You know, I always thought that the 'P' in 'LPS' stood for 'Public'; I wonder when it turned into 'Puritanical'?

There is a lot of Board Policy, so perhaps I missed it, but so far I haven't found the Policy that tells me what I'm allowed to say to students and parents when I run into them at the grocery store. Or at the Mosque, Temple or Church. Nor have I found the policy that tells me what is appropriate to say on the phone if I call them, what's okay to say in class, or what I'm allowed to write on a student's paper when I give them feedback. Probably just an oversight. In the meantime, just to be sure I'm not in violation of district policy, I think I won't have any communication with students' parents, or with students outside of the classroom. I'm struggling a bit with what to do in the classroom, though, perhaps only show approved movies so that I don't have to talk?

Let's see, what else. Ahh, yes, there's this,
Promotion of professional events must be posted on a previously approved professional social media website.
I'm really not sure what this means. Typically, Board Policy tries to be very specific so, if I read this as written, this seems to say that if I, as a staff member, want to promote some "professional event" of mine on the web, I need to get district approval. So, for example, if I want to advertise the speaking that I've done on occasion, or perhaps I do yard work or painting in the summer, or maybe I tutor students or run some kind of business out of my home selling cosmetics or something, or maybe I run a summer sports camp, apparently if I want to advertise on the web I have to get permission from the district first. I'm really not sure why that's any of their business, but since I can be "terminated" if it's deemed inappropriate, I suppose I must comply.

The above are concerning, but actually are not my major concern with these "guidelines." While these seem to restrict my personal behavior, which is troubling, I'm more concerned with the impact these guidelines will have on learning. For example,
Staff members are discouraged from communicating with students, their parents, and guardians through personal social media platforms/applications or texting. 
So I can call students and parents. I can email them. I can talk to them face-to-face at school or if I see them outside of school. I can send them a letter, a postcard or a telegram. But I'm discouraged from "communicating" with students and parents via text or social media. It's strange, previously I've always been encouraged to interact and communicate with students and parents, we typically call that "relationship building." But, for some reason, if I build relationships through texting or social media, it's considered bad. Again, probably just an oversight in Board Policy, I'm sure there will be new policy shortly discouraging those other forms of communication as well. It's a shame, though. Just like Willie Sutton replied when asked why he robbed banks, "Because that's where the money is," I would think we would want to interact with our students in social media spaces (and via texting), since "that's where the students are."

It is somewhat problematic, though. You see, about 75% of the staff members at my school have children in our school district. So I guess I'm not allowed to interact on social media with them or text them any more. And my daughter goes to my school, as do many of her friends, so I guess I'm not allowed to interact on social media or text any of those friends or their parents. Come to think of it, I suppose I'm also "discouraged" from interacting on social media or texting my own daughter. The more I think about this, the harder it gets. I mean, I don't know how many of the folks I connect with on social media or text might have some connection to a student in my school district. I guess to be safe I just have to close all my social media accounts and get rid of my texting plan.

It's curious. It appears as though my district doesn't trust its teachers on social media or via texting, so why in the world do they trust us with students face-to-face? (While the policy applies to all "staff," it's clearly targeted towards teachers. We are going to be "in-serviced" on this by district personnel during a faculty meeting in a couple of weeks. As far as I know, they do not have similar meetings scheduled with secretaries, custodial staff, kitchen staff, bus drivers, or parent volunteers.)

I don't know, but I believe this policy is going to be presented in terms of "student safety" and "staff protection." While I'm not questioning whether that's the intent of the folks who've created the policy, in the end it's the result, not the intent, that matters. And this policy does nothing to protect students. That's uncastrated male bovine excrement. (Just to be safe, I don't want to swear on my personal blog, as that might be deemed "inappropriate" or reflect poorly on my "professionalism".) This policy will do nothing to stop a "bad" adult from doing something harmful to students. The only thing this policy does is provide coverage to the district if such an unfortunate event should occur.

Much like many of the "rules" we have in place for students, this policy simply prevents the positive uses of social media and texting and does nothing to prevent the negative uses. It prevents the vast majority of staff members who will use these tools well, simply to protect against the very rare misuse of them. Just like punishing the entire class (or entire student body) for the actions of a few, we are unilaterally disempowering our entire staff because of the potential future abuse by the few (or the one).

So what's my solution? Err on the side of open. Remove these revised "guidelines" and rework the policy to focus on learning, on the positive aspects of texting and social media. Let's focus on "Responsible Use Policies," not on discouraging or prohibiting. Let's stop acting out of fear, and instead lead. Let's work with our students, and in the places our students frequent, instead of avoiding them because we're worried about getting sued.

As it's currently written, I could shorten this to the first four words of the second paragraph under guidelines,
Staff members are discouraged.
"A teacher walks into a bar." Kind of sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn't it? But it's not funny.

Update August 4th: Was called in for a "discussion" today about this post. Received further clarification that it's about student and staff safety (I still don't see it, but don't question the good intentions of folks involved). Also received further clarification that for any "private" communication with students that is not verbal face-to-face (email, text, written letter, social media, presumably anything direct to the student online) we are supposed to cc the parents or another responsible adult.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

My New Late Work Policy

I’ve been thinking a lot about late work policies lately. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s unfair to everyone to have different policies within the same school. It’s just not transparent and it makes it harder for everyone to figure out what they need to do to be successful. So I think it’s time that we have a uniform late work policy in my school. Oh, did I mention this policy is for teachers?

I think most of us can agree that as educators we need to be role models for our students. Part of being a role model is demonstrating the habits and behaviors that we want to inculcate in our students. Based on the discussions I hear among my colleagues, preparing for class and completing and turning in assignments on time seems to be highly valued by our staff, yet something our students struggle with. I think if we could model this for our students it would go a long way toward solving this problem but, to be fair to all teachers, we would need to settle on a uniform policy for how to deal with late work.

I’ll acknowledge up front that there will be multiple challenges with this policy. First, since the “reward” we give teachers is a salary, not grades, the logical way to implement the policy is to dock their pay. This might be tricky for Human Resources to implement, but I think it’s something we’re going to have to do.

A second major challenge is figuring out in advance exactly how much each teaching “task” is worth in terms of a teacher’s total salary. Luckily, we have practice with this since, as teachers, we decide in advance how many “points” or what “categories” we are going to use to grade our students. Just like we figure out in advance and in a logical manner exactly how many points we want each assignment in a semester to be worth (and how much each category is going to be worth if we use weighted categories, and then the points for each assignment inside that category) so that it accurately reflects a student’s learning, we should be able to leverage that ability to figure out in advance how much each task is “worth” monetarily for each teacher.

Once we’ve figured that out, then a third challenge will be to determine how much of the pay for each task we should “dock” them for being “late.” This is tricky not only in determining how much to dock them, but also involves some judgment in terms of when they do complete something on time, but it’s clearly just been put together at the last minute and doesn’t reflect the teacher’s best work. Again, thankfully, we have experience as teachers to guide us with this, as we often make that judgment call when students turn in something “on time” that clearly isn’t good enough, so we just need to translate that to our own tasks.

I definitely think this needs to be a whole staff discussion but, much like with my “big ideas” series of posts, I’d like to offer one possible vision of how this might look just to get the conversation started. First, I’ll address the Human Resources challenge. The good news is that Human Resources already knows how much each teacher should make each year, so it’s pretty easy for them to divide that in half to have a working total dollar amount for each semester. (I’m going to just assume that a semester is the correct duration to determine this since we’ve clearly determined over time that that’s the ideal length of time in which to judge students and assign grades.) So really all we need to do is figure out a system whereby schools can “report” to Human Resources how teachers are doing during the current semester. Again, we’ve already designed such a system, we just need to change the name of it from “grade book” to something more appropriate, perhaps “Teacher Tally” or something. Schools, presumably via administrators performing teacher evaluations, would simply input the scores for each task for each teacher. Since we get paid monthly, at the end of each month Human Resources would simply take the percent each teacher has achieved on that month’s tasks, multiply it by the portion of that semester’s pay the teacher is supposed to get, and that would determine the teacher’s gross pay for the month. Easy.

The second challenge will take a bit more work. As you know, teachers have many different aspects of their jobs and each teacher is different. But, in order to be fair, we will need a standardized system with clear, uniform standards in order to judge each teacher. So we’ll have to ignore some of those differences between teachers and settle on a single, uniform list of tasks that they will be assessed over and have a single, uniform due date and time for each task. In general, I see three categories that teacher tasks can pretty easily be divided into, so I would suggest a weighted category system. Those categories might be called administrative (the “paperwork” portion of our jobs), planning (the preparation and lesson planning portion of our jobs), and instruction/assessment (the teaching and feedback portion of our jobs). I think this is definitely something that needs to be discussed by the entire staff but, for the purposes of this post, let’s assume a 20%, 30% and 50% weighting for each of those categories.

Now that we have the categories, we’ll need to identify the particular tasks and how many “points” each task will be worth within that category. The administrative portion is probably easiest, since all teachers have pretty similar requirements in this area. For example, all teachers need to take daily attendance, keep their grade books current, submit grades at the end of semester, attend mandatory meetings, and reply to written requests either via paper or email. I’m sure there are a few more, but I think we might consider these the “common” standards we all need to meet, so they are probably the most important to assess. Plus, they're easy to measure. I believe those are all very important, so to keep this simple we’ll just make each of them worth 20 “points” in the administrative category, so that we’re working with a total of 100. (I’ve known a few teachers who do the same with points in their classrooms to make the calculation easier.)

Planning shouldn’t be much harder to evaluate, since teachers have to prepare and be ready to teach each class each day. Teachers would simply have to turn in their lesson plans to administration at least twenty-four hours in advance so that administration could occasionally “spot check” to make sure teachers were actually implementing the plans they submitted (trust, but verify, similar to a pop quiz). These lesson plans would of course need to be fairly detailed, so that administration could determine whether teachers would likely be successful in meeting the particular standards and learning outcomes identified by the teacher to be successfully completed in that lesson. Each semester is a bit different, but a typical semester has about 85 days in it, so I think each day should be worth 1/85th of the semester’s pay. (I know, it’s unfortunate it’s not 100, perhaps that’s something we could discuss with the calendar committee in the future.)

Finally, the instruction/assessment category. This, of course, is likely to be the most challenging and be the most time intensive for administrators. Since we’re specifically talking about late work in this post, administrators would not have to determine the effectiveness of each lesson as the teacher implements it (they’ve already covered that when assessing the lesson plan that’s in the planning category), but they would have to monitor the timeliness and effectiveness of the feedback given to students. For example, if students have to submit a written assignment of some kind (homework, quiz, test, project, etc.), then administrators would have to monitor whether the teacher got feedback back to the students in a timely and effective manner. Since we know timely and effective feedback is crucial to student learning and growth, I think 24 hours is the likely standard here. Since the number of these tasks might be variable, I would suggest giving a weekly grade worth 1/18th of the points in this category.

The third and final challenge is determining how much to “dock” each teacher when they complete a task late. This is going to take a lot of discussion, but I do think we can use our experience with student late work to guide us. For the administrative category, we’re likely to have several different levels of docking. Some tasks – like attendance – clearly have to be an all-or-nothing task, as turning in attendance several days after the fact really isn’t very useful. (Maybe we can give them a token 15% or something if they do, just because we do want to encourage them to turn in all their work.) It would be the same with meetings and certain paperwork – clearly if you’re late (or miss) a meeting there’s no way to really “make that up,” and some types of paperwork are pretty meaningless if turned in after the deadline. (Again, perhaps the 15% token grade for paperwork turned in late would be appropriate). Other types of paperwork are still meaningful even when turned in late, so I would suggest what seems to be pretty standard among many teachers for student work: 50% credit for late paperwork.

I think the planning category has to be pretty much all-or-nothing as well. The students are there each day, so if a teacher doesn’t have their plan done on time, it doesn’t do much good if they get it done a day or two later. Because we still want them to complete the work, however, I’d suggest the 15% credit for late lesson plans.

As I previously stated, I think the standard for the feedback portion of the instruction/feedback category is likely to be 24 hours (really, the next school day, so sometimes it would be a bit longer). Since feedback is not as valuable after that, but still does have some value, I would suggest the same 50% late penalty for missing the next school day standard, and then perhaps an additional 10% for each day thereafter. If they are more than 5 days late, then it wouldn’t be worth anything.

I think this system has great potential in helping us model for kids the importance of doing their best work and meeting deadlines. Clearly it doesn’t leave much flexibility for the differences among teachers or various life events that might impact them but, in order to maintain high standards for our teachers and students, and to be fair to everyone, I don’t see any way around it. Sometimes we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, so I think we’ll just have to go with the best solution that allows us to manage this process at scale.

Again, this is just one possible vision, I think the entire staff needs to weigh in. But, in the meantime, I’m curious: do you have a late work policy at your school (for teachers)? If so, how is it working? One thing I haven’t quite figured out is what to do with all the money we collect from teachers when they miss deadlines. I’m thinking perhaps we could create a pool of “extra credit” that teachers could complete additional, non-essential tasks to earn some of that money back.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Care Enough To Be Uncomfortable

I'm not very good with conflict. It makes me really uncomfortable, I don't think I'm particularly good at achieving positive outcomes when it happens, and I do many things to avoid it. I think there are a lot of educators who feel the same way. I also think that's a big problem.

I've been involved in multiple conversations lately where we've been discussing changes that we believe would have a strong positive impact on our students, but then we hesitate because we are worried about causing conflict with some of the adults. Let's be clear, we feel strongly that these changes are best for students, so there are no qualms about the changes themselves, our concern is over how some of our colleagues will react. We're worried that some of them might be angry, others might be dismissive, or - perhaps the biggest concern - that some of them might have their feelings hurt.

This has primarily arisen in relation to two different but related concerns. First, that if one or more of us change what we do in our classrooms, other colleagues who will then have the student after us will be frustrated because the student is not adequately "prepared" for their class. This might be a colleague we know at our high school, or a more generic "colleague" who is a college professor should our students pursue higher education.

The second concern is a bit more personal in the sense that we're worried about hurting someone's feelings. We're concerned that they will take our proposal for change as a personal attack, or as criticism that they aren't performing their job well. We generally like our colleagues, we know they care about our students and our community, and we know they work hard. So we don't want to cause them emotional pain, and we don't want to criticize or undermine their commitment and the hard work they are putting in.

But here's the thing: we need to do it anyway. We are not here primarily to meet the needs of our colleagues, we are here to meet the needs of our students. That's why all of us - including our colleagues - are here. If we truly believe that an idea can make a positive impact on our students, we need to be willing to pursue it even if it does have the potential to frustrate some colleagues or even cause them to be emotionally hurt. Now, I'm not saying we shouldn't be empathetic about this, or that we shouldn't do our best to approach these colleagues with care, concern and compassion. Often their anger or their hurt has a legitimate basis, and arises out of legitimate concerns with the idea that we'll need to address. And we should always treat people kindly, even when we disagree.

But that's not the same as saying, "Go slow," or "Let's don't try to take on too much at one time." The students at my school only have four years of high school. They don't get a second chance at it. They don't get a "do over." If we take two or three (or more years) to make a change that would be beneficial to them, then that's too late for those students we have right now. We can't be more concerned about our colleagues' feelings than we are about the learning of our students. We can't hesitate to bring up new ideas that will positively impact 2150 students because one or two or even twenty of the adults in the building might not be comfortable with the idea.

There's an old saying in education, "Care enough to confront." It's usually brought up in the context of confronting students, of talking with them about some action they are taking that we don't feel is beneficial for them. But I think we need to apply this equally to ourselves. We need to care enough to confront each other and ourselves. Care enough not to shy away from conflict if conflict is what it's going to take to make the changes that are necessary for our students.

As I wrote about recently, we need to lead. Our goal shouldn't be, cannot be, to manage our students, to manage our colleagues, to manage our schools. Our goal cannot be to simply keep everyone happy, whether they be administrative or teacher colleagues, college professors, or parents. As I said in that previous post, it's hard to lead if you're not out in front. We need to be out in front. We need to not put our colleagues' needs ahead of our students' needs. We need to care enough not to avoid conflict when conflict is necessary. We need to care enough to be uncomfortable.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Err On The Side Of Open

My school district, like most I imagine, has a book approval policy in place. We need to get rid of it.

As has been said many times and in many ways, we live in a very different world than the one most of us grew up in. As a result, schools are dealing with a large number of legacy systems (and legacy ideas) that don't make much sense anymore. A book approval process is once of them. We are now dealing with the contradiction that as soon as I hit publish on this post, any teacher in my building can immediately assign it to their students to read. But if they want their students to read Drive, or Mindset, or Go Set a Watchman, or anything else that is relatively new, they have to go through a fairly lengthy and time-intensive process to get someone's approval. When we have the sum total of humankind's knowledge a click away, why would we require approval for knowledge that has been printed on paper?

I think the main reason for the book approval process (and the main reason we have restrictive Internet filters), is a fear of ideas. We are afraid of the unknown, and we are afraid of any ideas that might conflict with our closely held beliefs. But isn't that one of the main purposes of education, to examine and interrogate our ideas to either confirm them or determine that we need to modify them?

A second reason is trust; we don't trust our teachers to make good decisions. A book approval process is in place because we're worried that some teachers might choose "inappropriate" books. But I find that logic troubling in several ways. First, as soon as you set up a district approval process to determine what is "appropriate", you restrict the learning opportunities of your students. As a rule, organizations - and especially schools - shy away from controversy, shy away from conflict. Yet cognitive dissonance is the basis for how we learn and, in order to catalyze that cognitive dissonance, you have to be exposed to ideas that are different than your own.

Second, I think the logic breaks down because we're willing to trust our students physically with these teachers, but somehow we're worried they're going to ask them to read a dangerous book? We're more afraid of dangerous ideas than we are of dangerous people. And if a teacher was intellectually dangerous in some way, wouldn't you rather discover it because they assigned an outrageous book instead of them flying under the radar interacting with your student each and every day? Our district has a clear and easily invoked policy that students can opt-out of reading any assigned book, so why wouldn't we open up the process and allow teachers to make professional judgements about what is best for their students?

I believe that in many ways this is analogous to other rules we have in place at school. Rules that end up restricting the vast majority of students (and/or teachers) in order to protect against a very small number who might "take advantage" of those rules. Here's one example, although I'm sure you can come up with many others at your own school. We don't allow students to have their water bottles out in the classroom. As best as I can tell, we have two stated reasons for this: they might spill and they might have alcohol (specifically, vodka) in those water bottles.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being insignificant and 10 being major, where exactly would you put spilling water in the classroom as compared to all the other things that can occur in the classroom? For me, it's less than 1. Especially considering most of the water bottles our students have would limit any spill to a very small amount, and most of our classrooms have tile floors. This is not a reason to ban water in the classroom (especially considering all the health benefits of drinking water).

Whenever we are reminded of this rule, someone always mentions vodka. Because once every decade or so, a student will fill a water bottle with vodka (or some other clear alcohol) and bring it to school. So, lets review. We have 2150 students at my school, so we're going to ban all 2150 of them from drinking water in the classroom over a period of ten years, because one student might bring vodka on one day during that ten years. Keep in mind, students are allowed to have water bottles outside of the classroom, and at sports and activities, just not in the classroom. It makes no sense.

I think there may be one more unwritten reason why we have rules like this. I think some folks really like rules. Some folks really like being able to say, "I'm the teacher, I'm the adult, I can have water in the classroom. You're the student, you're the kid, you can't." It's about control, and it's about power. I think we need to do everything we can not to have any teachers who think they are more important simply because they've orbited around the sun a few more times.

I think that book approval processes are also about control, and about power. But in that case it's about controlling teachers and exercising power over (restricting) ideas. None of this is to say that teachers won't ever make mistakes in choosing a book to read (or in the hundreds of other decisions they make each and every day related to instruction). But I think if we're going to make a mistake, if we're going to err, we should err on the side of open.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Idea #9: Lead

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the ninth - and last for now - blog post that will explore some of those ideas.
  1. Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank
  2. Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It)
  3. Think Differently About Time
  4. Think Differently About Classes
  5. At Least They've Still Got Their Health
  6. Cultivate Curiosity
  7. The Meaning of Life
  8. Community Service

Name of Administrator,

When you and I were growing up there was an expression that went something like, "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." The gist of it was that - in the corporate world - IBM was the status quo, the safe choice for your IT needs. They were a good, solid company, with tried and true solutions to your problems, and if you were tasked with purchasing something for your company nobody would ever criticize you if you chose IBM.

The downside of this philosophy, of course, is that it stifled innovation. IBM often was the best choice for a particular problem, but not always. Folks started trying to fit their problems into IBM's solutions, as opposed to IBM creating new solutions for evolving problems. Eventually IBM fell on hard times, and those that had relied on IBM often followed suit, and IBM had to reinvent itself a couple of times (to their credit, they did that really well).

What does this have to do with AHS? I think the essence of what you asked me to think about, the "big ideas" that you'd like to consider to make substantive changes to our school, is really looking at the question of how can we go from good to great. Arapahoe, by all traditional measures, is a good school. It has been for a long time, and likely will continue to be for a while, even if we don't make any substantive changes. But I think what we'd like to do, what we really need to do, is make that leap from good to great, and that requires us to move away from the status quo, move away from the safe choices that no one ever got fired for. I think we have to be willing to be fired; willing to make the choices that aren't easy or safe, but that we think are truly in the best interests of our students, that will take us from good to great.

In some ways, it's actually more difficult for a school like AHS because we are considered a good school. If we were a "failing" school (whatever that means), then people are willing to tear it all apart and start fresh, to try "radical" new approaches because it doesn't seem like it can get any worse. But when you are a "good" school, people are afraid. They are afraid to try anything new, they are afraid to innovate, they are afraid to do something that everyone else (or at least a lot of other "good" schools) isn't already doing.

Schools like AHS tend to talk about "incremental changes," let's just tweak something here and there to get a little bit better. We're already good, let's just keep making small improvements, fine tune around the edges and we'll maintain the status we've achieved over the last 50 years and everyone will stay happy. But here's the problem, you can't go from good to great by making incremental changes. You can't leap a 20-foot chasm in two 10-foot jumps.

We talk a lot with our students about taking risks, and we encourage them to take more risks. Not risks that are a threat to their well-being, but risks that take them out of their comfort zone. We tell them that unless they are willing to risk something, really risk something, to put themselves out there, they are limiting their chances to learn and grow. Yet we seem unwilling to model that for our students, unwilling to actually risk something in order to learn and grow ourselves, in order to make that leap from good to great.

Leadership is hard. It's hard to lead if you're not out in front.
  • It's hard to lead if you're not willing to risk something.
  • It's hard to lead if you're not willing to make some folks uncomfortable.
  • It's hard to lead if you're not willing to risk failing.
  • It's hard to lead if you're not willing to sometimes say "I don't know" or "I'm not sure."
  • It's hard to lead if you're not willing to try something no one has tried before.
When I get asked to speak to educators I frequently ask them if they were creating schools today, for the first time, given everything we know about learning, given modern technology, and given the modern world, would it look like how our schools look today. No one has ever said yes. No one.
I then ask them why we don't change what we're doing, why we don't make the changes necessary to create the school we would invent if we were inventing schools today. And there's usually silence.

We need to ask ourselves if AHS looks how we would want it to look if we were creating it for the first time today. We need to ask ourselves if are willing to reinvent ourselves, if we really want to go from good to great. If we are, and if we do, then we must be willing to step up and lead. I believe our administration is willing. I believe our staff is willing. I believe our students and our community are willing. Leadership is a choice, not a rank. Are we willing to make that choice? Are we willing to lead?

I look forward to finding out if we are.


Update 7-15-15: Sorry, I meant to include one more link in this. So imagine I had typed some profound sentence and linked to the Do Better Things post.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Idea #8: Community Service

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the eighth of an undetermined number of blog posts that will explore some of those ideas.
  1. Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank
  2. Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It)
  3. Think Differently About Time
  4. Think Differently About Classes
  5. At Least They've Still Got Their Health
  6. Cultivate Curiosity
  7. The Meaning of Life

Name of Administrator,

When I started at Arapahoe in 1991, community service was a graduation requirement. That was quickly abolished by the newly elected "Back-to-Basics" School Board, but it's a component that I think is essential to our high school. But I think it needs to be more substantial and more meaningful than simply a "submit a certain number of hours of community service" type requirement.

As with all these ideas I've been writing about, there are many different ways we could implement something like this, but I'll again share one vision of what it could look like. I really see two main parts of community service at AHS, and they both need to focus on both "community" and "service." I see one part focusing on serving the community of AHS, and a second part focusing on serving the wider community outside of AHS.

For serving the community of AHS, I think back to an experience shared after visiting schools in Japan. He talked about one school in Japan where the Seniors were responsible for cleaning the school each day. Not a hired custodial staff, not the faculty, but the Seniors themselves. talked about the sense of pride and ownership those students had about their school, and also how the younger students took great care not to mess up the place or they would face rebuke from the Seniors. 

I envision doing something similar at AHS, although modeled a bit more on Link Crew. My thought was to have all AHS students on the "community crew," but with Senior leadership. We would pair up two (or perhaps three) Seniors with a crew of 6-8 underclassmen who would work together, along with other teams, to keep Arapahoe clean and in good shape. This wouldn't negate the need for a custodial staff, there would still be some things that we wouldn't have students do for safety or other reasons, but I also envision the custodial staff using some of the time freed up by the community crews to serve as mentors to the crews, helping teach the students proper technique as well as problem solving.

At the size I'm suggesting (which is just a suggestion), we would have around 200 crews, with perhaps 2-3 seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen on each crew (that way, by the time they are seniors, students would have had lots of experience to help them as leaders). I foresee developing a rotating schedule where a certain number of crews are on a week at a time (probably five or six crews each week) and they divide up (and rotate through) different parts of the building during that week. Throughout the course of the school year, all crews would serve for a week.

When crews aren't on duty for taking care of AHS, they would instead be serving the wider community. That wider community could be somewhat local (near to AHS), somewhat broader (say, within Colorado), or as broad as they'd like (anywhere in the world). Similar to "curiosity conversations", crews (along with faculty support - perhaps tied into the advisories that the Senior leaders are part of, or perhaps not) would identify needs in their various communities and develop ways to help meet those needs. Sometimes crews might work as a single crew, other times they might team up with other crews for a larger project. Sometimes the project might be of a relatively short duration (perhaps a day or a week), but sometimes they might be extended projects that could take several weeks or months (or even years). In all cases they would be focusing on both serving and on building community, both community within their crew and within the wider community they are serving.

Our mission statement says that we will "encourage students to participate actively in their local and global societies," and our vision statement goes on to reinforce that by saying we will "produce responsible and empowered participants who make meaningful contributions in the greater society." If we truly believe this, shouldn't we be actively doing this during our students' four years at AHS? It's not enough to say that we are laying the foundation for some future participation, our students are responsible enough, capable enough, and I believe willing enough to contribute now. What are we waiting for?

I look forward to "participating" in this discussion with the entire staff.


Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Idea #7: The Meaning of Life

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the seventh of an undetermined number of blog posts that will explore some of those ideas. (Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank; Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It); Think Differently About Time; Think Differently About Classes; At Least They've Still Got Their Health; Cultivate Curiosity)

Name of Administrator,

Despite not wanting a long list of requirements for our students, I'm kind of on a roll with suggesting things we should perhaps require in some shape or form for all students, so I'm going to stick with it for a little bit longer. I've previously written about Health and Curiosity as being ideas I'd consider "core," today I'm going to add The Meaning of Life.

We currently spend a lot of our time with curriculum that we claim is preparing our students to live well, but we don't devote much time to helping them figure out how they want to live or how they define living "well." It seems like we believe that students will just automatically figure out what's important to them, what they value in life, how they will define "success," and how they want to live in order to achieve those things. Now, I'm not suggesting that we should tell them those things, or that their family doesn't have a big role to play here as well, but as they are creating their identities as teenagers I think we should devote some time where they intentionally think about these things and purposefully start developing their own philosophy of life.

As with everything I've been writing about, there are a variety of ways this could be done; I'm going to suggest one way it might look. First, as students enter AHS I think we need to do a better job of bringing them into the culture of AHS (especially if the culture is going to include some of the new things I've suggested, which are likely very different than what they are used to). Our LINK Crew does a nice job with an initial orientation for incoming freshmen, but after that it seems like we think students will just pick up various aspects of our culture by osmosis. I think we need to be more intentional and purposeful with this, which is why I would suggest an advisory class for each student for all four years at AHS.

Ideally these advisories would be 25 students or less with two staff members for each advisory. That would take about 170 staff members, which we don't quite have, but perhaps we could borrow a few from ESC to help with advisory time. These 25 students would stay together for all four years, with the same two faculty advisors. As they enter Arapahoe as freshmen, I would envision this class as partly an "Orientation to AHS" class, helping students figure out where things are, how things work, who to ask for what, and how to be successful at AHS. More importantly, however, it would begin the acculturation to our community of learners and begin the process of figuring out their own personal philosophies of life.

As the students get older, these advisories would continue operating in an advisory capacity, but would also spend time helping students begin to figure out some of the big questions of each student's life: how do they want to live, what does it mean to be successful, what's most important to them. This would include some exploration of some of the world's philosophical traditions, including the ancient Greek philosophies (my personal favorite: stoicism) and more modern ideas including rationalism, idealism and existentialism (among others). But perhaps unlike a traditional philosophy class that just explores others' philosophies and that we might offer as an elective, this would be offered to every student and be a chance for students to actively piece together their personal philosophy.

While they wouldn't "finish" this process by the time they graduate, they would be approaching adulthood with a much more informed perspective on how they want to proceed with their lives. Instead of the default being defining success as a college degree, a high-paying job, and a family with 2.4 kids, we would help students decide what is important to them and how to pursue their own definition of success. Many of us learn in school that Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," and Thoreau said "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined." If those are true, then shouldn't we help our students examine their life more closely, create and follow their dreams, and then help them live the life they've imagined?

The meaning of life is, quite literally, the meaning of our existence. Our students deserve the opportunity to explore their own meaning of life in a genuine, thoughtful, and thorough way as they are going through the identity-creation years of their lives. Shouldn't we help them do this in an intentional and purposeful way, instead of just "hope" they figure it out?

I look forward to having this discussion with the entire staff and am "curious" to see what results.


Idea #6: Cultivate Curiosity

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the sixth of an undetermined number of blog posts that will explore some of those ideas. (Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank; Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It); Think Differently About Time; Think Differently About Classes; At Least They've Still Got Their Health)

Name of Administrator,

I'm currently reading A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman. It's an interested read, as it details the "curiosity conversations" that Grazer has scheduled weekly for the past few decades with interesting people. It also reminds me of one of the biggest concerns I hear when I've discussed eliminating curriculum with both teachers and students: students don't know what they don't know.

The concern is that if students aren't exposed to many different curricular areas they may not know that they might be passionate about one of them. Many folks report that they didn't think they'd be interested in course until they had to take it, then discovered that they actually liked it (and there's almost always a nod to the passionate teacher of that course). This is a legitimate concern, and one I agree with, although I would question whether our current system really does such a good job of achieving this objective.

I think there are probably many ways to address this concern in a more open-ended learning experience like I'm suggesting, but let me share just one to give you an idea of how it could look. In my last post I suggested that one core "class" that I would keep is one built around physical fitness and health. I would also suggest a second "core" experience for all students, one built around curiosity and current events, maybe even call it "Cultivating Curiosity" or "Curiosity Conversations" or something.

Arapahoe, like many schools, has a current events class, but it is an elective, so not all students take it, and it only meets two days a week for one semester, so students only get a small slice of current events. I would propose that all students take "Cultivating Curiosity" or "Curiosity Conversations" throughout their four years at Arapahoe. With the guidance of several teachers, students would be exposed each week to what's going on in the world at a fairly shallow level, but at a deeper level than you might get by watching the evening news (think NPR/Atlantic length of story, with follow-up, as opposed to Nightly News/Denver Post length of story.) Then perhaps every two weeks or so, each student (or a small group of students) would choose one (or more) events that particularly piqued their curiosity and delve into them more deeply. They would continue to get the "shallow" current events discussion each week, so they'd still get exposed to what's going on in the world, but they would also take time to dive deeper into an issue for a couple of weeks, then dive deeper into another issue for a couple of weeks, and so on.

Then, perhaps at the end of the first semester, after they've dived deep into 6-9 topics, they might choose one of those to focus on during second semester and do a really deep dive, spending a significant amount of time learning everything they can about it, immersing themselves in the issue and perhaps delving into ways they could get involved. (Or, if nothing has really jumped out at them, they could continue doing the two-week dives on new topics.) If done well, this gives students exposure to many different areas, and in a fashion that is both timely and much more likely to be relevant to their lives that a pre-digested curriculum.

I think this has great potential, although I think we would perhaps expand the definition of "current events" a bit from the way we currently define them. We would certainly still incorporate the "hot topics" in the news, but my vision of current events would also include many areas that might not be on the front page, but are still current. Here's a (non-comprehensive) list of some current events that I think would be likely candidates if I was teaching this class this week:
  • Economic Crisis in Greece (economics, politics, government, history, mathematics, geography)
  • Confederate Flag and #BlackLivesMatter (history, politics, philosophy, sociology, media)
  • Climate Change/Energy (science, mathematics, politics, government, history)
  • Retirement Security (government, economics, mathematics, politics)
  • Education Reform (government, economics, politics, science, philosophy)
  • Space/Rocket Launches (science, mathematics, government, economics, sociology)
  • Gender/USWNT (sports, politics, economics)
  • Iran Nuclear Deal (science, politics, government, geography)
  • 2016 Election (politics, government, philosophy, media)
  • Driverless Cars (economics, politics, government, science)
  • Mental Health (science, medicine, government)
  • Marriage (sociology, politics, government, science)
And many, many, many more. Teachers and students would have equal responsibility to suggest topics each week, and to search and research to find reliable information. Students would get an opportunity to present on their deeper dive topics, and these topics could lead to internships, mentorships, or job placements. Note that this "class" doesn't preclude or supersede the "pursuing your passions" piece from my earlier post, but just provides an additional opportunity for exposure to new topics and possible passions.

I think curiosity is "core" to learning, and should be front-and-center at Arapahoe. I look forward to having this discussion with the entire staff and am "curious" to see what results.