Saturday, October 17, 2015

A New Mission

A little while back I wrote about my frustrations with my school's mission and vision statements. As I said then, I doubted that very many (if any) of our students - or our staff - could tell you what our mission statement said, much less our vision statement.
That doesn't mean I don't generally like what's in our mission statement (and, for that matter, our longer vision statement). You can read them here (pdf). I do want students to achieve their potential, collaborate and be life-long learners, and contribute to society. The problem is that when you have a mission statement that no one knows, and that has generic statements like that, it ends up being pretty meaningless.
In other words, it's mission impossible.

On our in-service day on Thursday we broke up into small groups to discuss our mission and vision statement, with the purpose of identifying things we wanted to keep, things we wanted to get rid of, or things we wanted to add/modify. Each group worked on that for a while and then submitted a summary of their thinking to administration, who will review it and then . . . well, I'm not sure what exactly the next step is, but I think the intent is to come up with a new (well, modified) mission and vision statement that would be applicable in 2020 (our current one was created in 2007).

In my small group we had a great discussion and we all generally agreed with the sentiments I expressed in my previous post, that while there isn't really anything we disagreed with in our current mission and vision, it was pretty meaningless because it was way too wordy and tried to be all things to all people. We reached consensus that our mission needs to be something that is succinct and meaningful, and that all students and staff should not only know, but should refer to it often.

I shared Science Leadership Academy's mission and vision as an example of the direction I would like to see us head. I suggested that framing our mission and vision around a few (maybe 2-5) essential questions and a few (maybe 3-6) core values was a good way to really hone in on what it is we're about at Arapahoe High School. What we're trying to achieve, what we value, what's important enough to put up on the walls of every single classroom and refer to every single day.

We had a great discussion around that, and my group was generally receptive, although I'm not sure they are necessarily as enamored of this approach as I am. The summary we turned in (on paper . . . sigh) included these ideas (although not the hyperlink to SLA's mission and vision). We'll see where it goes, and it will be interesting to see what other groups come up with (although I'm not sure we will see that, just the "results").

I think it's sometimes tough for folks to get their minds around a mission and vision that is not exhaustive like our current one is. Because we think lots of things are important (and they are), we want to make sure they are all represented in the mission and vision so that nothing (and no one) gets "left out." But I think that really misses the mark on what a mission and vision should be. Our mission should really be our core purpose and our core values, and to be "core" they can't include everything. And our vision, while it should be aspirational and can certainly be a bit longer, still needs to be at a relatively "high" conceptual level.

As in my "big ideas" series of posts last summer, I thought I would take a stab at writing a mission statement for AHS. To be clear, I am not suggesting that this should be the mission statement for AHS (although I think it would be a good one :-), but I think it's helpful for folks to see one particular example of how it could look in order to help foster discussion. So here we go.

Essential Questions (PPSL)
  1. What does it mean to be literate?
  2. How do you define "success"?
  3. What is your passion and what is your purpose?
What does it mean to be literate?
This is a question that I have frequently asked during my speaking engagements. I talk about it a bit here, but I want to be clear that I'm not referring to "literate" in the traditional sense of "just" reading and writing (although even in those areas I think this is vastly more complicated than we assumed it was when I was growing up and going through K-12). This includes mathematical literacy (sometimes referred to as numeracy), scientific literacy, artistic literacy, emotional literacy, and a whole bunch of other literacies (as NCTE says, "many literacies" that are "dynamic and malleable.")

At its heart, this is really a question about what it means to be competent, capable and empowered in a certain area. I also think a key component of this is how do you know that something you've created is good, not just by some external measure (although that can be informative), but how do you yourself know that it's a quality product? Some folks might prefer to reword this as "what does it mean to be educated?", and I think that would be okay, but I decided to stay away from that phrasing because I think it has too much baggage. By focusing on a new way of looking at the word "literate," I think it frees us up to really consider a broader array of skills and habits of mind.

How do you define "success"?
We talk a lot about helping students be "successful," both in school and then in their lives after they leave school. Every school, every government official, every education reform group, every parent, and even every student will talk about needing to prepare students so that they can be successful, and who can argue with that? Well, I can. Because we never take the time to define "success." And if we don't agree on an operational definition of "success," then all those statements about preparing students to be successful are essentially meaningless.

We just assume we all know and agree on what "success" is. I think that's not only incorrect, I think it's dangerous. First, it assumes that success looks the same for every single student, that each and every individual student should have the same goals and same metrics to measure what they accomplish. I think that's ludicrous, and I think that anyone who stops to think for even a minute about this would agree, yet that's the assumption baked in to so many of our statements about what students should be learning in order to "prepare" them for their future.

Second, it assumes that success is defined by society, or at the very least by some combination of government, business, family and educators. Shouldn't success be defined by each student, for themselves? Certainly government, business and educators, as well as friends and family, will help shape and form each student's ideas around what success is but, ultimately, isn't that up to each student to decide? How often in K-12 do we allow students to define their own success? How much opportunity do we provide them to think about this ultimate issue of their lives? People scoff at "what's the meaning of life" discussions, often ridiculing it as idealistic and naive, something that only happens in late-night discussions during college. I think this is exactly wrong. I think this is the most important discussion our students could be having.

Finally, I think this is really dangerous. When we assume we all know and agree what success it, we then start making a series of decisions around students' educations that might be completely and utterly wrong if our first principle of what success is is incorrect. It's like chaos theory, where small changes in initial conditions can have drastic changes in end results. What if our initial condition assumptions about success, which are really also assumptions about the purpose of education, are slightly (or not so slightly) off? Then all those subsequent dependent decisions we've made around education are a giant house of cards, propped up on a faulty foundation. We can do better.

What is your passion and what is your purpose?
This one relates closely to the previous one about success. I think there's a fundamental decision we have to make about school - is it designed to meet the needs of our students, or is it designed to meet the needs of adult society? I would agree with those that say this isn't necessarily an either/or question, but I still think it's important for us to decide which takes precedence. It probably won't surprise regular readers that I fall on the side that school should be to meet the needs of students. I feel if we truly meet the needs of each student, then ultimately we will also meet the needs of society. (I strongly believe that the inverse, however, is not true.)

If we can agree (which is a big if) that we should meet the needs of students, then I think the issues of passion and purpose are critical. What is each student's passion in life? What do they want their purpose to be? How do we help them pursue those passions and achieve that purpose? Can they have more than one and/or can they change throughout their lives? I think so, but I think that's also part of the education of each student, helping them decide that for themselves.

As a parent, I think I feel the conflict that most parents feel, that we want our child to make their own way in the world, yet we really, really, really want our child to also conform to our morals, principles, and ideas of success. I think school is that conflict writ large; that we say we want our students to become independent and critical thinkers, yet we really, really, really want them to independently come to the same conclusions we have. If we truly want them to be independent and critical thinkers, we have to give up some control.

Core Values (C3P3)
  1. Curiosity
  2. Compassion
  3. Community
  4. Perseverance
  5. Passion
  6. Purpose
I think curiosity is the touchstone of learning, and therefore should be perhaps the principal core value of our school.

The unifying phrase of my school is "Warriors, Always Take Care of One Another." If we believe that, we need to live that, and that is going to involve intentionally focusing on both compassion and empathy.

While I emphasize the individual a lot in this post, I think that meeting each student's need ultimately includes helping them form and build community. The reason we come together as a society, as communities, is to make life better for all of us, so this must be included in our core values.

I want to be clear that I'm not jumping on the "grit" bandwagon here. Like many, I have concerns with some of the assumptions and implications that some folks include in their grit narrative. Having said that, I think the idea of perseverance is still a fundamental one. I think where I differ from some of the thinking around grit is the idea that I value perseverance toward achieving one's own goals, not someone else's perhaps arbitrary ones. I want our students to pursue their passion and their purpose with perseverance, so it's a core value I think we need to explore with our students.

Passion gets a bad name. Critics make fun of passion by either linking it with romantic passion or with students being passionate about something the critics feel is meaningless while living in their parent's basement. I think that there are some "puritan ethics" lurking in this conversation (at least in the U.S.), and I think this goes back to our societely-assumed definitions of success. Perhaps I'm too idealistic, but I think a life driven by passion is likely to be a key part of most people's ultimate definition of success. If we pursue something we feel is passionately worth pursuing, then it's a life well-lived.

I go back and forth on whether passion and purpose are two items or two sides of the same item. At the moment, I'm keeping them separate, because I do believe you can have some passions that perhaps do not rise to the level of purpose. Much has been written about living with purpose, so I don't have a lot to add here, other than the observation that we again tend to shy away from helping our students discover and determine their own purpose. A core value, a core purpose, of our school should be to help students do this.

Again, I'm not suggesting this should be "the" mission for AHS - this needs to be a school-wide (and community-wide) discussion, but I thought laying our one possible vision of what it could look like might be helpful. So this would be what we put on posters all around AHS, to be referred to daily and for students and teachers to hold themselves accountable to (the only form of accountability I think really matters.)

Arapahoe High School Mission

Essential Questions:
  • What does it mean to be literate?
  • How do you define "success"?
  • What is your passion and what is your purpose?

Core Values:
  • Curiosity
  • Compassion
  • Community
  • Perseverance
  • Passion
  • Purpose

No comments:

Post a Comment