In conversation. In reading. In social media. Two words are rising above others in regard to my thinking about teaching, learning, and leading a school. These words are WHY and PURPOSE. Interesting that two words can carry so much meaning and so much weight.
It should come as no surprise that I have interest and drive in challenging the status quo for education and schooling. This is not a new idea and small and great change has occurred in places throughout our country. I’m looking at the opportunity staring me in the face as we open a new elementary school in Humble, Texas. There is no prescribed way of doing things. Everything and everyone will be new. We will be defining operational and instructional practices at the school. A great place to start as this is established is to ask a question. WHY? Why do we think this is the best way to do this? Why do we think this will work? Why do we think this is best for students? We can apply this question to nearly everything. At the very least it should get people to stop, think, and reflect. A plausible response will be needed in order to proceed.
The other word is PURPOSE. It can be in the form of a question as well. It can come from both operational and instructional practice also. We are planning to do this or to do that as a school community. What is the purpose for doing it? Teachers will ask students to do this or to do that. What is the purpose of having students do it?
These two words can become part of our practice as school and classroom leaders. By defining WHY and giving PURPOSE we surely establish importance and relevance. These words provide the pathway to making change for the better. We want the best schooling experience for our students.
I may not always have the answers, but I know that I have two important questions. Why? What is the purpose?
School is not a Job
Life coaches and others write and speak about adults finding their “sweet spot.” This can be visually shown on a graphic like a Venn diagram. It is the place in the middle where passions, skills, interests, character traits, etc. comes together. It is that time when an individual is living his or her passions. Sir Ken Robinson wrote extensively about this in his book, The Element. This is the ideal. This is the goal for all of us. What could be better than rising each morning to do or perform that which you love to do? It is succinctly said that with that we are #livingthedream.
I am fortunate that I have spent nearly all of life as a student and educator. Even throughout my adult life as an educator I have always seen myself as a student, and I still do. I have the daily joy of working with fellow educators and most of all students who are naturally filled with curiosity and joy. To me education is not a job, it is a passion. It is a mission. I believe that any successful person in the field views it in the same way.
This moves me to a comparison that is often used with students, and I’ll admit that I have used it (though, with this reflection…never again). Examine this scenario. A child is unmotivated. He or she is not participating or not fulfilling potential in the day to day activities at school. In attempt to reverse this we talk to the child about his or her “job.” Mom and Dad have their jobs and the child’s job is School. Wow. How wrong can we be? School should not be a job. School should be an adventure. A journey. An expedition. What is the purpose of school? In a traditional sense it is to prepare a child for a successful life, but it is also to help discover what that might be. If we return to the top, don’t we want each of children to discover and live out their passion? Wouldn’t that equate to increased success and happiness? If that is the case, then school certainly should not be a job. If the child is unmotivated and/or underperforming then we must first look at ourselves and determine what we can do to reverse the trend and help the child come closer to the “sweet spot.” School should be a place that children look forward to, not a place to go to put in the time.
“The Element is the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. When people arrive at the Element, they feel most themselves and most inspired and achieve at their highest levels.” – Sir Ken Robinson
Teachers in the 21st Century
I’ve been doing some thinking. I do that frequently. If I’m out running I have plenty of time to do a lot of reflecting and thinking. Recently, I have been reading books and articles about schools and change. As I have shared at the community sessions, I believe that change is needed. We cannot continue to “do school” in the same way. To do that is to become irrelevant. Another point I tried to make in the presentations is that the change isn’t all about WHAT we teach, but more about HOW we teach and HOW we want children to respond and share what has been learned. It is well known in research that the teacher is the most critical element in the learning for a child. It’s not the program. It’s not the amount of materials. It is the relationship established between student, school, and mainly the teacher.
This thinking and reflecting has led me to read more about teacher qualities and characteristics that will lead to the highest levels of success for today’s students. The thoughts I share below are not my own. I want to thank Edutopia and George Couros (educational consultant and author of Innovators Mindset) for providing the framework and many of the thoughts that I share below. I found that these sources reflected my own personal beliefs.
Desired Habits for Teachers in a 21st Century Elementary School
All students are different. All have unique strengths. Learning should cater to the strengths while ameliorating the weaknesses. When students are allowed to make their own choices, they own their learning, increase intrinsic motivation, and put in more effort -- an ideal recipe for better learning outcomes!
Today's students have the latest and greatest tools, yet, the usage in many cases barely goes beyond communicating with family and friends via chat, text, or calls. Even though students are now viewed as digital natives, many are far from producing any digital content. Workbooks and worksheets are a thing of the past. Students have access to their own or the school’s devices, we must enable students to use them to be producers within our digital world.
We must continue to learn and use technology. We can’t expect students to live in our world. We must live in theirs.
We can develop understanding and empathy by connecting to others in our world. There is nothing like learning languages, cultures, and communication skills from actually talking to people from other parts of the world.
When students are encouraged to view their devices as valuable tools that support knowledge (rather than distractions), they start using them as such. We must help students develop as Digital Citizens and Digital Leaders.
In some format it is essential to reflect. Our toughest critic is ourself. Learn to listen to that voice in a productive way. Blog about the journey of learning. It is therapeutic and it helps you to connect with others. This also models authentic writing for an authentic audience for your students.
Another important attribute is to go paperless -- organizing teaching resources and activities on one's own website and integrating technology bring students learning experience to a different level. Sharing links and offering digital discussions as opposed to a constant paper flow allows students to access and share class resources in a more organized fashion.
Now more than ever, it is not acceptable to teach “within the kingdom of your classroom.” Technology allows for collaboration between and among teachers. Creating digital resources, presentations, and projects together with other educators and students will make classroom activities resemble the real world. Collaboration should go beyond sharing documents via e-mail or creating PowerPoint presentations. Many great ideas never go beyond a conversation or paper copy, which is a great loss! Collaboration globally can change our entire experience!
While this one might sound complicated, coding is nothing but today's literacy. As a pencil or pen were "the tools" of the 20th-century, making it impossible to picture a teacher not capable to operate with it, today's teacher must be able to operate with today's pen and pencil, i.e., computers. Coding is very interesting to learn -- the feeling of writing a page with HTML is amazing! Just one more way of being a continuous learner!
Don’t be afraid to expand your teaching toolbox and try new ways you have not tried before.
As new ways and new technology keep emerging, learning and adapting is essential. The good news is: it's fun. Don’t be the teacher who taught third grade for 30 years. Be the teacher who taught children for 30 years. Think about the difference.
50 years ago, relationships were the most important thing in education, and 50 years from now it will be more so. Do our students feel valued when they come to school? Do we seek to simply engage them in content, or do we seek to empower them to create? Every child in the school is all of our responsibilities. In a world that is becoming more and more complex, students need to know that they can trust the educators to see them as individuals, and that they are valued. None of the other strategies or approaches will matter without this foundation.
The only constant that we can count on education is change. You could have been an amazing educator 10 years ago, but if you have changed nothing since then, you could become irrelevant. As the world continuously moves forward, if you stand still, you are ultimately falling behind. We need to continuously evaluate our practices and the impact on students to grow and get better. We need to model the same openness to learning and change that we expect from our students.
“If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.” —Dylan William
Do we want everyone to think the same by the time they walk out of our classrooms or schools? If we do, it is not really thinking; it is compliance. Every single individual has different experiences and strengths that they bring to the classroom, and we are all better if we look to tap into those strengths and build a community around them.
Information is coming our way faster than ever. If anything, we need to slow down and critically analyze it, not simply accept everything that we hear. Reflection becomes essential in this process. This is crucial that we embed time in our days and the days of our students to not only reflect, but make their own connections to learning.
“We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey
Networks consist of both “online spaces” and face to face collaboration. Creating diverse networks in and out of education is crucial, understanding we can learn a great deal from the person across the hallway, as we can from the person on the other side of the world. To create the best experiences for students, you need access to the best ideas; this can come from anyone and anywhere. When you are networked, great ideas often find you, not the other way around.
As David Weinberger states, “The smartest person in the room is the room.” If that is true, how big is your room? How do you access this “room” to be better for your students?
We do not only need to embrace meaningful change, but we need to create it. Innovation is about creating “new and better” things; it can be iteration (a remix of something) or invention (something totally new), but it has to be better. As the skills that students need in our evolving world become increasingly complex, we have to be in the mindset where innovation is the norm, not the exception.
Remember…innovation is probably not in your curriculum, but neither are worksheets.
The notion that “everyone is a leader” is something that has been challenged a great deal over the years, yet what does being a “leader” mean? It is not being a boss. There are some principals who are not leaders, and some teachers who are amazing leaders. What is crucial to think about is whether or not you have the ability to influence others to positively move forward in specific areas.
“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” ― Rudyard Kipling
“Lecture” has become a bad word in many education circles, while Ted Talks have exploded. Many see this as irony, but these aren’t lectures as much as they are stories.
If we want meaningful change, we have to make a connection to the heart before we make a connection to the mind. People have to feel something. Simply sharing information is not a way to create this connection, but we have to think about how we create this connection. Telling stories helps people create their own connections and meaning, and in a world that is information rich, we are vying for the attention of our students. These stories we tell are the ones that stick with our students longer than simply sharing ideas. We need to look at not simply sharing ideas, but helping share information in different ways that are memorable and compelling. “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” ― Brandon Sanderson
The learning environment matters. How does the space make people feel? Do they have options to learn in a variety of ways to suit their needs? Many people do not go to Starbucks for the coffee, but to spend time there for the feel of the space. The notion of the “designer” is not only in how we create our spaces, but the experiences that are created for learning as well. Would you want to spend the whole day learning in your own classroom? The point of this is to think about learning from the viewpoint of those you serve, not simply your own. We have to understand what possibilities exist in our world today, and be extremely thoughtful in how we design learning experiences to maximize space, resources, and access for all learners.
“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” - John Steinbeck
When you see what you do as an art, and you realize that the minds you help shape are a beautiful canvas, teaching is more than a job, it’s an art. Great educators are artists, plain and simple.
Sources: Edutopia, George Couros - Innovators Mindset
A 30,000 foot View
“Let’s take a 30,000 foot view.” “This is what I see with a 30,000 foot view.” These, and similar phrases are used in many organizations. It usually denotes strategic thinking. I found this explanation recently. “A 30,000 foot view could be looked at as a way of getting clear as to where we are, where we want to be, and how we’ll get there.” That makes a lot of sense to me. I’m taking a 30,000 foot view of ES 28 in a strategic and figurative manner.
Where We Are
We are at the start. We are at the beginning. It is the preface. Physically, the building is moving along in the construction phase. At last check, I was given an estimate of being about one-third completed. The opening of a school is much more than having all bricks in place. What I am doing now is painting a picture, but I haven’t begun to use the paint. I am defining the picture.
There is a big advantage to starting with a blank canvas. A school is like a small community. Schools, like small communities have a culture. A culture is built over time through the people who inhabit the community or the school. Often the work of the leadership is to change the culture. As a new school we do not have an existing culture.
Where We Want to Be
We want to create a shared community that values timeless human qualities of curiosity, exploration, and innovation. As humans we are naturally curious. Watch the actions of a toddler. Nearly everything in their world can bring about curiosity and adventure. Think about how our societies have evolved through the natural human inclination to innovate and make things better. We are constantly exploring aspects of our world to gain knowledge. These are all natural tendencies that we want to nurture and encourage.
How Do We Get There
We certainly are not there yet, but we are farther along than we think. We have the vision. The key ingredient of reaching this future is people. So many experts smarter than I espouse the ideas that any success, particularly in schools; is due to people not programs. From day one, and even now, we are working to establish a welcoming, relationship based community. We work relentlessly with our focus on the target. We want each and every student to be excited about attending school. We want each and every student to be connected to their school. We want each and every family to be proud of their school.
Let me throw in one more question.
What Does This Look Like
Words are one thing, but a visual is something else! I have located this YouTube video of another elementary school led by Dr. Brad Gustafson. He is the author of Renegade Leadership: Creating Innovative Schools for Digital-Age Students. Our purpose and focus will be to create a school with a culture that shares many of these same values.
Top Ten Reasons to attend elementary school in The Groves
A New School: My Beliefs
Over the last few months and into the future I will be connected with the building of this new elementary school. I am often asked, “What is like, building a new school?” “What will this new school be like?”
To date, and again into the future, many of the decisions will center on the “stuff.” Decisions are made on materials, furnishings, colors, layouts, themes, etc. What is missing and what will have the strongest influence upon the new building is people. This holds true for any school. The defining attribute of a successful school is the people who inhabit it.
The most important decisions that I make as a school leader are related personnel. It is so critical to have the right people to form, support, and maintain the culture and excellence of a school. To that end, I am firmly rooted in my beliefs and I will seek the kind of people who can promote a culture that aligns
I believe that a school should foster an atmosphere of innovation and risk-taking. Someone once said that “everyone and everything is either getting better or worse. Nothing stays the same.” As individuals and as a school we should be in a mindset of continuous improvement. As leaders and educators we model this practice so that students can attain the same mindset.
I believe that a school should encourage creativity. Rote learning is increasingly unconnected to the world we currently inhabit and certainly will provide no advantage in the future. We must encourage students to seek and develop their passions. They will then refine them through creativity. This characteristic is certainly prevalent within the arts, but goes beyond to how we approach problems. Students need to develop creativity in order to solve the real-world problems related to math and science as well. “Every child is an artist.” Let’s not forget that and let’s not inadvertently discourage the creativity associated with it.
I believe that a school should provide opportunities for collaboration and leadership. Everyone is a leader. The only way to hear the voices of all is through collaboration. Teachers must move beyond collegiality toward true collaboration for the benefit of all students. Collective thinking and solutions provide long term gain.
I believe that all students can learn and want to learn. Everyone is born with natural curiosity. The school must adapt to this natural curiosity. Learning must be relevant and interesting to our students. Our students must see and believe that the learning and the products associated with it have meaning. Students must have opportunities to share their knowledge with an authentic audience. As educators we must keep that curiosity alive and not squelch it.
I believe that future success of students is connected with communication. Students learn to receive information as well as transmit it. Reading and other forms of literacy are a foundation of gaining knowledge. The tools are continually changing, but it still comes down to understanding the message. Next, is the ability to use the information in some manner and transmit it to others in usable methods. These methods and forms, though also changing, still come down to writing and the transfer of one’s thoughts and ideas.
All of these beliefs can certainly be supported through the environment and through resources, but the primary mechanism for success is the people.
Recently, the majority of my creative thinking has gone into brainstorming ideas for the themes, graphics, visuals of the new elementary school. Of course, I have not engaged in this alone. I have talked with many other people within the district. I have gathered their ideas and shared my own. I have spoken with former colleagues that I grew to value and trust.
I have connected with several experts who publish and present about school design. I want to put in a plug for getting on Twitter as the primary vehicle that made this happen. These individuals from Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc. have been part of my #PLN (professional learning network). Prior to these conversations I had no connections outside of Twitter with them, but those connections certainly made it easier and possible for the conversations to occur.
Words and pictures are so important…and decisions are being made about what will adorn the walls in 2017 and for many years into the future. It has to be timeless. It has to carry relevance. I believe that these words and images have to inspire and send the message of what our school is about.
We are still into the iterative process, but I will share some of the words that are being considered for the walls that will tell the story and share the vision of the school as well as inspire teachers and students to great heights.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
I am sure that there are many jobs and/or positions that require decision-making. I can really only speak to this as an educational leader. As an elementary principal decisions are made each and every day. In fact, in this position you must decide upon which decision may have priority over another. You must decide whether a decision should be made by you alone or through collaboration. Decisions are made all day, every day. With 24/7 access, the demand for decisions is constant. I often get home in the evening or on a weekend and have no desire to make even the simplest decision.
I am in the process of listening to the audio book edition of #Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. I listened to it several years ago, but I am very glad that I have pulled it off the shelf to have another listen. We all have things that we can learn and improve, and based on the nature of the job of elementary principal, decision-making ranks high.
The authors propose a process that they coin as WRAP for making decisions.
Widen your options
Reality test your assumptions
Attain distance before deciding
Prepare to be wrong
I am not too deep into the book on this second go around. I have only heard and reflected on the first section, but it has many ramifications.
As the authors propose, we too often make either/or decisions. This is shown to often lead to narrow thinking and being wrong. Just as the title suggests, it is best to create or find options that exist outside of A or B. Too often we want to solve the problem and get it off the to-do list. I know that I can be guilty of doing this.
Schooling is changing. We are moving outside of the confining box of the 3 Rs. We are well into the 21st century and it is necessary to embrace the kind of thinking and learning that is present in our current world. One example of this change is through the adoption of the 4 Cs. These are critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication.
The idea of Widening your options certainly fits into these skills that we wish to develop in our students. As school leaders we need to practice them as well. I can have decision-making as a place to apply this.
I have recently been reading the October issue of Educational Leadership. There are many fabulous articles that have encouraged my thinking about teaching and learning, and in particular the theme of lesson planning. Two articles or columns that I read separately really intertwine into my thoughts.
The first was the monthly principal column by Thomas Hoerr. The second was the monthly column by Charlotte Danielson. Both writers address the topic of engagement.
Mr. Hoerr emphasizes three factors necessary for students to truly be engaged. These are relevance, high interest, and the feeling of success. If these are present students will be engaged for the sake of learning and not for the sake of a grade or compliance. These factors all present allow for curiosity and wonder. These factors allow for the learning to be joyful and fun. Students are engaged because they want to be, not because they have to be.
Ms. Danielson writes about effective lessons in the metaphor of a dinner. She asserts that we cannot become so focused on the standards that we are teaching that we forget about the student who is to learn it. In her metaphor the standards become merely ingredients. As teachers we have to combine the ingredients and consider who we are feeding. If we don’t make the dinner inviting and delicious the students may not eat it, or may bite and chew simply out of compliance.
It is my desire to be a leader of a school that has an intriguing menu. The classroom/dining areas are inviting and promote the discourse of learning. The students/patrons visit each day and can’t wait to return again.
Shortly after reading these columns in the journal I came upon the ad for a LaVonna Roth conference session on Twitter. It all came together and this student is showing and saying exactly what Thomas Hoerr and Charlotte Danielson are sharing.
The Classroom for Today and Tomorrow
We are already in the planning process for furnishing classrooms in the new elementary school that will open next August. I have been reading about ideas, seeing some ideas, and forming my thinking and philosophy of this.
I am drilling down to the basic thoughts of having the space being both functional and flexible. Those ideas work with each other interchangeably. I also work from the most basic premise that schools are for kids, not for adults.
My reading has taken me to books and blogs on the subject of classrooms and innovation. A recent blog by George Couros shared three questions that would be most appropriate for thinking about equipping a classroom for learning in 2017 and for many years beyond.
How can we be innovative given the constraints that we have to work within?
Is this better than what we have had before?
How do we share this with others?
This is a new building so one might think that there are no constraints. There might be fewer than an existing school, but they are still there. Of course, cost is a constraint. A set amount of dollars will be used for equipping the school in all areas of operation with classroom furnishing just be one. The limit then is being prudent. Getting what is desired at a reasonable cost.
I have no doubt that this will be better. Currently, schools here and around the country are moving away from the status quo in fits and starts. It might be a classroom or two in this building. It might be a hodgepodge of items that move away from the standard desks and chairs. First of all, I see us being very purposeful. There is and has been a push for instruction to change. There needs to be more student ownership and voice in the process. Learning is more process oriented as opposed to content driven. A classroom needs to have the functionality to promote this. We know that learning can occur anytime and anyplace and our schools need to model this as well. I have a caution hanging in the back of my mind though as we proceed. What we do here has to be better, yes. Better for today and tomorrow. What we must avoid are fads. Education is great for ideas that come and go quickly. We will avoid furnishings that may look great and seem like the best thing, but if they don’t meet the rule of functionality and flexibility it may just be a fad.
Lastly, how do we share this? Of course, the school will open in less than a year and that will create an avenue for sharing, but what can we do prior to this? I am already working to be able to have created, at least for a short period of time, a model classroom. This classroom in an existing school will show furnishings as we envision for the new school. In this space we can have visits from all stakeholders and decision-makers to actually see what we are visioning. We can have teachers view it. The best thing is that we can have students see it and react to it, not in just a quick “touring” kind of way, but with a lesson or two taught in the space.
My thinking around all this goes back to instruction and learning. We know that learning is evolving. We know that teaching must change to match the way children are learning. It must be relevant and engaging. The atmosphere in which this will occur must be conducive to support and encourage this to happen.