Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Struggle is Real

When I was a little boy and first learned how to ride my bike, I had all kinds of difficulties.  I would struggle with balance, fall down often, and accumulate my fair share of scraped knees.  This was not an easy task, as it took several hours, days, and weeks of guided practice before I mastered the proper technique.  I don't remember a great deal about the process other than my mother and father pushing me to stick with it while providing me with a great deal of feedback and encouragement.  I bring up this memory not only because I am in the process of unsuccessfully teaching my six year-old how to ride a bike, but also because I think it is applicable to our work with students.

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Many years ago I was teaching fifth grade and the students were given an open response problem to solve independently as part of their first math assessment of the year.  These types of problems are based on real-world scenarios and require deep thought. There are infinite ways of coming up with an answer and the process of thinking is much more important than the product (the correct answer). One of my higher achieving students was visibly struggling and approached me several times as I was walking around the classroom.  I told him to read the problem again and see what he could come up with to solve it.  After the fourth time that this student approached me, I sat down to make sure that he understood what was asked of him to solve the problem.  He continued to ask, "Mr. Butler, do I need to multiply or divide here?"  I answered all of his questions with questions of my own in an attempt to allow him to think for himself while owning his learning.  As we went through this dialogue, I will never forget what he said to me in a very annoyed tone: "Dude, just tell me what to do and I guarantee that I will be able to get the right answer."  Needless to say, I did not give in and let the student struggle through this problem which he absolutely despised.  As the year went on he became more accustomed to the way that I taught and learned to think deeply for which he was grateful.

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Unfortunately, the situation that I described above is all too common in our classrooms and interactions with kids.  Do students experience enough productive struggle within our educational settings?  Are they led to levels where their comfort zones are pushed which causes them to think, discover, and solve problems for themselves?  Often times we are quick to jump in and think for our students, solve problems, and protect them from difficult situations.  Unintentionally, this leads to low levels of engagement and surface-level thinking.  I am not implying that we intentionally place students in harm's way; however, learning how to struggle, deal with adversity, and persevere are some of the most important skills that I want to see in someone who works in our schools.

Whether we are teaching our child to ride a bike or facilitating an open response math assessment, we have the ability to build or shut down perseverance and resiliency within our kids.  It is important for us to create the appropriate conditions where it is safe to take risks, think deeply, and struggle in a productive manner.  As leaders, we must continually build these skills within our kids by focusing feedback on the process and the results will take care of themselves.  The struggle is real and we can learn a great deal by experiencing it.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Reinventing the Game


This post was written with Dr. Todd Schmidt (@tsschmidty); you can find his blog here.

In just a few short weeks, students all around the country will be getting ready to start school again. Invariably, on the first day, many teachers will go over the “rules.”  You know the ones…

  1. Raise your hand if you want to speak
  2. Stay seated
  3. Turn in your homework
  4. Follow directions...and so on...

These are some of the rules to that game we call school.  Follow the rules to the game and you might get out alive.  Don’t follow the rules and you can be labeled all sorts of things.  We value the compliant student...the one who doesn’t get into trouble...the one who completes their homework on time and regurgitates the right facts at the right time whether it be in multiple choice or essay format.

Like many educators, we were successful at playing the game.  Homework was completed, tests were studied for, and essays were turned in...but in reality, did we really learn how to “do” anything? Not really...we got the grades and our behavior was such that we almost never really got in trouble.

In the Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros talks about how we have conditioned kids to schooling when he writes, “accustomed to and successful in controlled learning environments, some students may fear being educated (and assessed) in any other way...If we really want to serve our students and help them to develop into leaders and learners of today and the future, taking risks in our practice is not encouraged but necessary (emphasis mine).”

For me (Todd), this upcoming year is about introducing Design Thinking via the ideas extolled by AJ Juliani and John Spencer in their book Launch.  More than Maker Space or Genius Hour, design thinking combines many of the tenets of Maker Spaces and Genius Hour and tries to expand it into other areas of the curriculum.  I am also trying to be purposeful and methodical as we implement this.  Rather than looking for flashy, the goal is to introduce and implement in a way that does not overwhelm either me or my staff.  In fact, we are taking an empty classroom and working as a school community to develop it into a lab where students have a say in what it looks like as well as what happens in there.  It will be a year-long journey that I intend on chronicling through this blog!

As we move forward, we want to create a new game where the innovators, disruptors, questioners, and staff members who allow students to break the mold are celebrated.  We have experienced a system where compliance rules and levels of authentic student engagement are not where we would like to see them.  We do not discount the importance of meeting standards, learning targets, and instructional objectives; however, we have an obligation to create authentic learning environments within our schools.  Our students deserve the chance to be excited about learning, growing, achieving, and improving.  Below are some thoughts of how to create this type of atmosphere for students.

Student Choice and Voice
Do students within your classroom/school have a voice?  Are they offered choices within their learning? There are a variety of ways to make that happen that do not require a lot of money or excessive planning...just time and a willingness to release some control to our students.  In both Kids Deserve It and Hacking Leadership, Todd Nesloney and Tony Sinanis describe a student-led EdCamp.  In essence, students showcase their passions and other students get to choose which sessions they attend.  The key is that students lead the sessions and other students have the choice to pick what they want to learn more about!

To promote student voice, choice, and higher levels of authentic student engagement, we introduced “passion projects” to a group of fourth grade students at one of my (Dan) schools.  These kids had the opportunity to choose something they were passionate about and would like to explore on a deeper level. They were given 45 minutes each day to do it.  Some chose to create a video using iMovie highlighting the amazing things taking place in their school through a series of interviews, pictures, and sound bites.  Others chose to learn about the intricacies of volcanoes and built fully-functional models to demonstrate their learning.  It was truly magical to see students so involved in their work while developing strong skills that will last a lifetime.  We will continue to promote passion projects in the coming year to increase student ownership of learning.  For additional ideas to promote student choice and voice in your classroom, please see: 5 Ways to Give Your Students More Voice and Choice via @WordLib of @edutopia.

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Creating the Conditions
Ms. Smith?” “Yes, Dan.” “Do you know who uses this quadratic equation in their daily work outside of an Algebra classroom?”  “Trust me and follow the formula and don’t forget, your homework is page 244 #’s 1-41 odd.”  Unfortunately this conversation happened many years ago and is all too common in classrooms today.  Students are inquisitive by nature and tend to ask an unbelievable amount of questions, particularly at a young age.  What generally happens over time is that our students stop asking so many questions within the school environment due to a number of reasons.  I contend that a strong part of this is they become conditioned to the game of school which includes covering the content, doing your homework, shutting your mouth, taking the test, and doing it all over again the next day.  This is not an indictment of teachers; rather, it is a criticism of a system that has not evolved to meet the needs of today’s learner.  It does not have to be this way.  We can create environments within our classrooms and schools where students are inquisitive, have permission to explore their passions, and the opportunity to question how specific content fits their plans for the future.  As leaders, it is our responsibility to remove barriers, celebrate risk-takers, and allow these approaches to take place within our schools.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Permission to be Great

More than 25 years ago, I was finishing up my last day of fourth grade and walked out of school with one of my all time favorite teachers, Mrs. Lammers.  As we were heading to the walker line, she asked me about my plans for summer, how excited I was for the upcoming baseball season, and what I was most looking forward to in 5th grade.

I loved Mrs. Lammers for many reasons: her passion for baseball, the way that she brought characters to life when she read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and most importantly how she made an intentional effort to connect with me while pushing toward higher levels than I thought possible. I was not the highest achieving student, nor was I the hardest worker.  School was just not my thing; I really struggled with reading and did not put forth the effort to get better.  However, it was different with Mrs. Lammers, as she held this incredible belief in me and made me want to learn more each and every day.  She showed me that mistakes are not fatal, reading Sports Illustrated for Kids is completely acceptable if it piques your interest, and intelligence is not fixed: success will come to those who work hard and find their passions.
As we were walking out of school on the last day, Mrs. Lammers stopped me and said, "Dan, you have my full permission to be great."  These words have stuck with me since 1989 as I think about my time as an educator working with students and adults.  We are in a field where we have tremendous influence over others.  In 2016, there is certainly not a shortage of school improvement efforts and initiatives, as the pressure to improve is forever present within our settings. I am a firm believer in school improvement and am constantly searching for ways to get better; however, sometimes we over think it.

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Whether it is 1989 or 2035, education is always going to be about people and the positive relationships established will be a key accelerator in school improvement efforts.  I am not discounting comprehensive systems and programs that schools across the globe are implementing to better serve students, but we must never lose sight of making strong, genuine connections with our students, families, and colleagues. Dr. Russel Quaglia said in his keynote address at #naesp16, "Common sense often gets trumped by common practice within our schools."  Let's not overthink it when we are searching for ways to get better.  Sometimes all it takes is for the conditions to be right and permission to go out and be great.   

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Modeling the Way

Earlier in the week, I had a great opportunity to drop by two fourth grade field trips, each of them taking place at Four Mounds, a high ropes and team-building site that our students visit each year to wrap up a fantastic career in elementary school.  I have said for many years that this is the best field trip that I have ever been part of because of the incredible experiences that students gain in a short amount of time.  During their time at Four Mounds, students participated in high and low ropes courses that present physical, mental, and emotional challenges.  Communication, teamwork, encouragement, perseverance, mental toughness, and the ability to step outside of one's comfort zone are essential within the various activities.  As I observed, talked with others, and participated in the activities myself, I thought about key take-aways that can guide our work as educators.

Taking Risks
There is no question that students were pushed outside of their comfort zones as they rotated through the rock climbing wall, zip line, "flying squirrel," and the lower course that required clear communication, teamwork, persistence, and emotional stability.  It was powerful to see students face their fears while climbing the pole to get up to the zip line and balance beam platforms. They were scared, but they knew the feeling they would get after hopping off that platform would be worth it. As I drove back to school that day, I couldn't help but think about how this type of risk taking can apply in a classroom, school, or district setting.  Each day educators are faced with hundreds of decisions; some are big and others quite small.  We can make a choice to play it safe and do the same things we have always done or we can try something new that could truly make a difference in the lives of others.  Pushing our comfort zones is hard, but we must remember this is where true growth and learning occur.  Here are a few thoughts that may push your comfort zone and can lead to improvement:
  • Video yourself teaching a lesson or leading a professional learning session.  Analyze this and make changes to improve your practice.
  • Implement a strategy or idea that will push your comfort level and benefit students.  Select something that you learned about online or from a professional journal.
  • Solicit the voice of your students or the staff members you serve to make a decision that may not be convenient for you, but is certainly best for students.

Encouragement | Appreciation | Recognition
As our fourth graders were working through these stations, I was impressed with the amount of encouragement, appreciation, and recognition that they provided to each other.  When their friends were struggling with climbing or were afraid to go to the next station, you could hear all kinds of encouraging words that motivated kids to push themselves even further.  Being an educator in 2016 is hard, particularly with the negative rhetoric circulating in the national media stating that schools are failing. High stakes accountability measures have threatened the autonomy of educators making it challenging to do what is best for kids within this system.  We must remember to take the lead from our students at Four Mounds and continue to encourage, appreciate, and recognize those within our environments.  It is up to us to contribute to positive cultures where student learning can flourish.  Here are a couple of ideas to promote more encouragement, appreciation, and recognition within our school settings:

  • Write two hand written notes each day this week to students, colleagues, or someone important to you to let them know how much you appreciate what they do.
  • Greet everyone you see within your school in passing and ask them about their day or weekend.  When they respond, truly listen in an attempt to connect further.
  • Provide a genuine thank you to someone who has recently helped you accomplish a task.  (I realize all of these thoughts are common sense, but I would argue that they are not common practice, particularly when life gets busy).

Response to Feedback
One of the greatest parts of this field trip was watching students listen to the feedback provided by the workers at Four Mounds while using it to help them move forward.  For example, there were a number of students who were climbing the giant rock wall and came to a place where they appeared to be "stuck."  The workers would get their attention and say something along the lines of, "Pull up with your right arm and extend your left leg to the next ledge."  The feedback was specific and actionable which led to results.  I witnessed this on numerous occasions on the high and low ropes courses which gave me an excellent reminder about how to effectively provide and use feedback to improve performance.  I was reminded that feedback needs to be specific, immediate, precise, and actionable to lead to increased performance while addressing the question of, "Where to next?"  I think at times we get tied up in the day to day operations within our settings and forget about the power of effective feedback. Sometimes our eyes are only open to what is going wrong rather than seeing all of the good around us.  When we take the time to provide specific, precise, and actionable feedback, we greatly increase the chances of seeing the desired behavior in the future.  What can you do this week to provide more effective, more regular feedback?:

  • Be a witness to the good (thank you for the terminology, Jim Knight).  Pay attention to your students or staff members and look for things that they are doing well and let them know about it.  For example: "Thank you for entering the classroom so quietly, Steve, and getting right to work on your bell ringer assignment.  When you get right to work to begin the day, I know that you are ready to have a great day of learning."
  • Take the time to listen to the feedback that you are provided throughout the week and think about how you can use this to improve your practice.    

These two visits to Four Mounds were remarkable and sparked so many thoughts about how to improve our settings with simple reminders.  Kids are amazing and they can teach us so much if we simply take the time to stop, listen, and observe.  As I watched students climb up to the zip line, problem solve on the lower course, push through to get to the top of the rock wall, and encourage others on the "flying squirrel," I couldn't help but appreciate all that I am able to learn from these amazing kids.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Lead Like Peyton

I have been watching Peyton Manning play quarterback in the SEC and NFL for more than half of my life.  This man has dazzled me with touchdown passes, fourth quarter comebacks, competitive fire and unbelievable poise over the past 20+ years. I have been a fan of his since his days in Tennessee and even felt that he should have won the Heisman Trophy over Charles Woodson of my beloved Michigan Wolverines in 1997.  After 18 years in the NFL, two Super Bowl championships, five Most Valuable Player awards, and fourteen Pro Bowls, Peyton decided to officially hang them up earlier this month.  As I listened to his press conference and reflected upon his career, I couldn't help but think what leaders can learn from this incredible athlete.

Be Humble
Peyton Manning is an absolute superstar and simply one of the best to ever put on a uniform; however, when you listen to him speak, you would have no idea.  Peyton is quick to thank those around him including coaches, teammates, his family, and the fans that support him on a weekly basis.  There is no question that Peyton Manning is confident of his skills and abilities, but he realizes that the supporting cast is critical to maximum achievement.  He has clearly stated that everyone on the team matters and contributes to the success of the collective whole.  It is very rare for a player of this caliber to recognize and realize that absolutely everyone within the organization makes a difference.  We can learn a lot as leaders from this man.
Tireless Preparation
There is simply no one better at game planning than Peyton Manning.  This man revolutionized how the game was played at the line of scrimmage before the snap, due to in-depth study of his opponent. It was clear (especially late in his career) that Peyton Manning was not the quickest, nor did he have the strongest arm or tightest spiral on his throws; however, nobody was going to come to the competition knowing more about his opponent or anything else that had to do with the game.  There are so many things that are outside of our control including injury, weather, incidents with students and their parents, but when we take time to prepare, we increase the likelihood of our success dramatically. Whether we are getting ready for a professional development session with staff members, reviewing for an important school board meeting, or simply organizing events in our personal calendars to increase efficiency throughout the day, we can all learn from Peyton Manning while investing the time that is needed for excellence.
Strength-Based Leadership
It was pretty evident in Super Bowl 50 that Peyton Manning was a completely different player than he was in Super Bowl 41.  It looked like he had trouble getting into five and seven step drops throughout the game, but this didn't stop him from having an impact.  On paper, it appeared that he was a non-factor by completing only 13 passes for 141 yards and an interception.  The truth is that Manning continued to focus on his strengths which included reading defenses, knowing situations, and limiting mistakes while facilitating a ball control offense.  There is no question that Manning was surrounded by absolutely fantastic players in Super Bowl 50, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.  We can learn a lot from this scenario in leadership positions.  We don't have to be the best in every facet of our positions, in fact, there are many things that we will not do very well at all.  The key is to focus on our strengths, continue to improve, and surround ourselves with outstanding people who make us better.
Don't Take Yourself Too Seriously
We've seen many commercials over the years starring Mr. Manning, whether it involves Nationwide, Papa John's, Saturday Night Live, among other opportunities. The guy has a knack for laughing at himself whether he is dancing, humming various tunes, or signing very poorly.  We have serious jobs as educators and the stress can beat you down if you let it.  We must take a page out of Peyton's book and laugh at ourselves from time to time to keep our sanity and let those around us know that we are human.
Peyton Manning spent his career making big plays on the field and never ceased to amaze me with his comments after the game and off the field actions.  A lot can be learned from The Sheriff and I am extremely grateful that I have been able to watch this man play for more than 20 years.  Peyton Manning is so much more than a superstar quarterback and I will always remember the leadership lessons that he has provided to me.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Song Remains the Same

One of my all-time favorite bands is Led Zeppelin; I own just about every one of their albums.  If you ask me, it doesn't get much better than the 6:45 mark of "Stairway to Heaven," and I have been known to belt out this song, particularly in my younger years, but that is a different post for a completely different setting.  The other day I was listening to another one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs as I was driving in between the two schools that I serve.  This song prompted some thinking about education, changes on the horizon and it happens to be the title of this post.

There is one certainty in 2016...change.  Whether we are studying a new instructional technique to engage students, establish more efficient methods of collecting performance data, finding different ways to connect with families or recruiting new members to join our teams, change is happening rapidly before our eyes.  We consistently look for better or more efficient ways of doing business with the end goal of improving each day.  It is easy to get lost in these changes, as our world continues to move at a record breaking pace with daily advancements in technology and web-based tools.  I am a proponent of change and have attempted to embrace new tools, methods and ideas as they have come my way.  As I think about change and forward movement, I often find myself focused on the constants and despite how many changes come our way, the song remains the same in some respects.

People will always be the X factor.

We've heard this before: relationships, relationships, relationships.  Nothing could be more accurate. It doesn't matter how efficient of a system we've created or how much money we've invested in the latest maker space if we do not have a significant connection with the people in our business. There are people behind the instruction, assessment, coding application, Facebook post and everything else within our field.  When we communicate, establish trust and appreciate those around us, the sky is the limit for what we can accomplish.  Whether we are living in 1916 or 2016, it doesn't matter, it is always going to be about positive relationships and connecting with people.

The faces may change, but the path toward excellence does not.

I know this team has received a great deal of criticism in recent years with "Deflategate," "Spygate," among others, but you really cannot argue with the success of the New England Patriots in the past fifteen years.  There have been many faces that have contributed to the success of this team and it seems as though skill players continue to come in and out, but it doesn't really matter, the direction and the results remain the same.  This organization has developed a system of excellence that continues to produce amazing results year after year, regardless of the surrounding cast.  It certainly doesn't hurt to have Tom Brady running the offense with the genius of Bill Belichick standing by his side!  The point that I am trying to make is that there has been a system established to produce excellence, regardless of the supporting cast.  I believe this can be created within our organizations as well when we are clear of our direction, assemble the proper team and are relentless in our path to excellence.

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There is no doubt that change will continue to swirl around our professional and everyday lives. Changes are exciting, nerve wracking and uncertain; however, within this process there are foundational pieces that remain the same.  Throughout the change process, I encourage everyone to focus on the people behind the initiative and the path toward greatness.  While the future is uncertain, in many aspects the song remains the same. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What Matters Most...

A couple of days ago, I attended an IEP meeting at the end of the day.  The beginning of this meeting with parents was typical as present levels of performance were presented, goals set and instructional supports discussed.  IEP meetings are predictable as they follow a particular format, but something out of the ordinary took place near the end that left me thinking about what matters most in our profession.

After the family was informed of their son's progress and plans moving forward, they shared how satisfied they are with the support that our school has been able to provide.  It is always great to hear comments like this because there are times when family support is not nearly as prevalent in these types of gatherings.  The mother continued to thank her son's teacher for her commitment and making an intentional effort to connect with him.  She said, "We love our son dearly, but also realize that he is a handful to say the least."  "You understand him and he connects with you more than any of his teachers in the past; that makes all the difference in the world."  "My son has not enjoyed school in the past several years, but now cannot wait to come each day because of you." 

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 Our staff members work extremely hard preparing engaging lessons, designing appropriate interventions to meet a variety of needs and spend countless hours analyzing data to make the best instructional decisions.  This work is critical to the success of our schools, but does not mean much if there are not connections with children.  When we are able to establish positive relationships with students and discover what makes them tick, the possibilities of learning are endless.  On the flip side, if there is no relationship, we can spend a great deal of time planning, instructing and assessing, but it will not carry nearly the same amount of weight.

This is my thirteenth year in education and my first group of students are now in their early twenties. I will run into these young adults from time to time and the conversations are always fantastic.  They never talk about the engaging math lessons that I was able to deliver or the results that they were able to achieve on standardized assessments.  What they remember from more than a dozen years ago are their baseball games that I attended, the time we spent playing together at recess or the stories that I told filled with lessons learned from my time in school.  I am not discounting the academic content that we teach students; however, this material is not nearly as impactful without a true connection.

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At the end of this IEP meeting I was reminded of the most important component of education.  In ten years, this young man will not remember the instructional techniques utilized to meet his needs, but he will remember clearly that his teacher was invested and took the time to love him.  As we continue to work through the day-to-day craziness of school, let us not forget about what matters most.