Sunday, October 27, 2013

Back to my Roots

I spent yesterday morning having pancakes at my old Junior High School, McClure in Western Springs, IL.  I walked the halls that I was able to, entered through a new expansion of the school, looked at the theater area where I got my first concussion, and ate pancakes in the cafeteria where as a 7th and 8th grader I tried to learn not only how to grow academically but to survive socially those weird years known as junior high school.  I also came across the sign above the door to the south end of the school that immortalized our Principal Mr. Johnson who retired following my 8th grade year, "Have a Good Day and Pass it on".

Every morning for two years I heard that message at the end of our morning announcements, and I like to believe that hearing it motivated us to do that and helped us all to have a better school environment.  It is also one of the few reminders of my junior high years that has survived to future generations, the records that were set by my classmates, the trophies we won, and the achievements we had were not visible anywhere that I looked in the school, but this great reminder of how to live carried on and continues to motivate those who were influenced by it to do as we were instructed so long ago.

While waiting for my family to wake up so we could go eat pancakes, I spent some time reading John List and Uri Gneezy's The Why Axis:  Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life which brought me back to another part of my life, thinking like an economist.

As an Econ teacher I fell in love with the idea of thinking like an economist particularly the idea that people respond predictably to incentives and that they make rationale decisions to improve their lives with the choices they make.  Unfortunately, school administration has shown me that many of my students are not rational actors.

In learning and thinking about Economics, I have been particularly enthralled with the work of Steven Levitt and his Freakonomics Blog which has been featuring the work of Mr. List and Mr. Gneezy in small article since the release of the book.  One of those articles, and two chapters in the book, deal with field experiments in education in the Chicago Heights School District. 

During these experiments students were paid for improving their grades and attendance.  Each month students who met their educational goals would receive $50 and be entered into a lottery for a ride home in a Hummer Limo.  After one year of doing this with freshman students, they found that the grades of students on the border of failing and dropping out of school could be impacted.

In a second experiment students were given $20 prior to taking a standardized test.  They were told that if they could beat their score from the previous spring, then they would be able to keep the money at the end of the testing period, but if they did not improve, they would have to give the money back.  Students were given a $20 bill that they could see during the test, and were asked to sign a receipt acknowledging that they had received the money.  They then were able to find out at the end of the hour, if they had passed and could keep the money, or if they would have to give it back.  They also had a treatment where the students, if they met their goals, received the money after the test only, where they received the money a month after the test was over, or where they received a $3 trophy.  In all cases student achievement improved over the previous years tests.  Overall they saw gains of 5-10 percentage points on a 100 point scale.

This lead them to conduct experiments with incentives for teachers, parents, tutors, and to design a pre-school program within which to conduct experiments with young learners before bad habits, lack of growth, and the jadedness of being a 14 year old set in.   In all of these cases, the experiments showed growth.  The lasting part of this reading though came at the end of the Chapters on these experiments where the authors wrote:
We must all realize that our public schools are not just knowledge-pumping (or, at worst, babysitting) institutions dedicated to teaching our children how to learn how to become functional citizens.  In reality, they are laboratories of learning for everyone researchers, parents, teachers, administration, and students too.  Just imagine how much we could all discover if more people began running and participating in field experiments to discover what works."-The Why Axis:  Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life page 106-107
 This has me wondering what incentives can we put in place at PHS.  How can I experiment with incentives and our most troublesome students when it comes to attendance?  What would schools that are systemic in pursuing excellence in education look like if scientific method became the basis for our innovation, as opposed to marketing campaigns from education companies?  What new insights might we discover that will push our students to greater heights?  How might we, like Mr. Johnson, make our schools and world a better place?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

You Play How You Practice

Yesterday we had our monthly administrative cabinet meeting which involves all of the administrators at each level of our school corporation.  During the meeting we were discussing ways in which we could define our win that go beyond state mandated testing.  During this discussion, one of the items discussed was student attendance.  This is a complicated topic for me, because I spend a lot of time calling parents, speaking to students, and yet it also something that I feel is vital to the success of our students.  It along with tardiness are my pet peeves, and also my most frustrating issue, because the remedies often mean that students who do not change their ways end up missing many days of school, and my remedies give them permission to do so, which is often what they want.  The frustrations of this reality are material for another post, psychological counseling, and hopefully some helpful hints from others.  It is also bizarre because our attendance rate, while not perfect, is consistently at or slightly above 95%, but I digress.

It seems this week that many of my students are channeling Allen Iverson, except that they are not "talking about practice" but rather "talking about school".  I many of the conversations, it seems as if they are merely replacing his use of the word "practice" with the word "school".  A typical conversation goes like this:

"Billy (all people examples in my life have always been Billy and Suzie, so these are not real student names) you have been tardy to your first hour class 19 times this year, out of 32 days."
"But Mr. Olson, it is only like 30 seconds each time.  Are you really telling me that I have to stay after school for 2 hours for being 30 seconds late, that is ridiculous!"
"I agree that it is ridiculous that you can't manage to be in class on time.  If this were a job, you would be fired by now."
"But it isn't a job Mr. Olson, it is ONLY SCHOOL.  If this were a job I would be here everyday because I would be gettin PAID!"

Here is where the practice line comes in.  See in the minds of my students, and maybe yours as well, school is merely practice, a job is the big game and when it is time for the big game, I will show up ready to win, even without practice.  Problem is, this more often than not isn't the case.

When I was a swim coach, we consistently told our swimmers that you play how you practice. We won a lot of races and meets not because we were the most talented team in the pool, although we had great talent, we won because we played the way we practiced and we emphasized doing the all important little things correctly every day, and if we were not doing those things we started over.  The mundane of swimming, turns and finishes, are often the least practiced parts, but often win the biggest races.  We practiced these daily, not by doing special sets to practice them, but by insisting that our swimmers do them at race pace and as if in a race every set.  Sloppy turns where they would breathe in and out of walls were not tolerated, slow turns did not happen, and finishing a swim with any style of finish that did not jam your outstretched fingers into the wall was unacceptable.  

In swimming, as in life, it is often the littlest things that propel us to greatness or keep us from the prize.  We play like we practice, because if we can not sustain excellence in practice, we will fall short when it counts.  For proof, ask Milorad Cavic if he wishes he had finished hard all the time.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Multiplying my Math Musings

image from Wikimedia Commons

It is hard to believe that we are almost through the first six weeks of the school year and that October is upon us.  It is not hard to believe that I have not written a blog post since August however.  The fast pace of the school year is upon us, and it seems like the days are traveling faster than the Millennium Falcon at hyper-speed.  But just because I have not committed them to digital paper, it does not mean that I have not been thinking for the last month.  In particular I have been thinking about math.

I am not, nor will I ever admit to being, good at math.  It was not a subject that I enjoyed, or excelled at, while I was at any level of my schooling.  With my love for economics and problem solving, this should be a surprise, but I just can't seem to make math make sense in my brain.  When I have students come to me who are struggling in math, I can easily sympathize, but not so easily help them and this extends now to my own daughter Sophie.

My inability to help Soph with her math is not something new, as she exceeded my current math memories when she began taking pre-algebra 2 years ago, but 2 weeks ago it all boiled over.  It was a rare evening when I was home earlier enough for Sophie to still be doing her math homework and as she struggled she asked me a geometry question:  "If two sides of a triangle are congruent, are the angles congruent?"  I am sure my high school geometry teacher Mr. Allen would love for me to say that some 29 years later I was able to quickly answer this problem, but the reality is I could vaguely recall what congruent meant, but had no idea what the answer was, so I turned to Google.  Google quickly informed me that this would be true, and I went back to reading an article titled Why Nate Silver Can Save Math Education in America from Mindshift.

Sophie, quickly then interrupted my thoughts with another question, which I cannot recall, and I in frustration asked her how it was that she had just watched my Google the previous answer that she could not take her phone, which was sitting next to her, and do the same thing that I would be doing for this question.  This was not one of my finest parenting moments and did not go over very well.  My frustration was being driven by two things, one the embarrassment and frustration of not being able to help my daughter (and painful realization that she is mathematically much smarter than me) and the frustration that she was not using the technological tools she has been given to problem solve on her own-but that is a topic for another post.

After the residue of my frustration had again settled, I apologized to my daughter, finished the article I was reading,  and found her some pencils from the Rose Hulman homework helpline Ask Rose (1-877-Ask-Rose).  The article, however, struck a chord with me, because of 3 quotations that I have excerpted below:

 Paul Lockhart, a math teacher in New York, writes in A Mathematician’s Lament [PDF] that if he had to design a system for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, he couldn’t possible do a better job than is currently being done. He explains that he simply wouldn’t have the “imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.”
Across the land, kids hate math. You can hear it in their constant groans and see it in their deranged faces. They ask their teachers, “When am I ever going to use this in life?” On most occasions, they never will. Even President Obama agrees. He recently said on the Tonight Show, “The math stuff I was fine with until seventh grade. Malia is now a freshmen in high school and I’m pretty lost. It’s tough.” 
There are lots of reasons for this. In the current system, students’ confidence in their math abilities becomes undermined, according to a Duke University study. Math is taught as computation rather than a means of exploration and discovery. Instead of engaging in meaningful problems and learning in depth rather than breadth, kids are assigned frivolous, repetitive problems. And finally, the way math is generally taught has no relevance to real life. School has become a practice of learning tricks for the test one week and forgetting the next.
These statements resonated with me,  because there was a time, that I vaguely remember in the far reaches of my mind, when I was good at math.  When I was in the highest math group, and I enjoyed math-6th grade.  But after that, math became the drudgery described above for me, the relevance left, and I moved on to other subjects that I enjoyed more.  This is not a post blaming my teachers, or even the system that taught me that I am not more engaged in math, but it is one to ponder about why it seems soo many students seem to hate it so.  So I have spent the last two weeks talking via email with math teachers on our staff, reading more articles about math.  The two most impactful being an ASCD article on Real World Math by Dan Meyer and a blog post by Mike Thayer on his Hyperbolic Guitars Blog in response to Nicholson Baker's September 2013 Harper's article on Algebra 2 in which he (Mr. Baker) advocates that we stop teaching math without a narrative and that instead of requiring all students to take the math sequences we now offer in school (Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus, etc..) we require a math survey course and then allow students who desire more math to pursue the higher level courses as electives.  

Both of these resonated with me for different reasons.  The blog post by Mr. Thayer exposed me to discussions that appear to be happening more frequently in the math education community about how to restructure math, many, but not all, driven by the changes to come with the Common Core Standards, but also made me think about how eliminating the requirements for higher level math might further widen the achievement gap in the United States.

An Aside:  This article by the way, completely flipped my view on higher math from a year earlier after reading Andrew Hacker's NY Times article Is Algebra Necessary?  that had appealed to my desire to spare others my frustration with math and got me to think more about how we teach math vs. is math necessary.  Hacker's argument to get rid of a required subject, just because students dislike it and see no relevance in the "real world" could be applied to any subject.  History teachers often hear this same complaint and Bob Knight once famously said (of sportswriters) "All of us learn to write in second grade, most of us go on to greater things" yet we still require English courses at all levels despite protestations of students and rarely do we hear of calls to eliminate those courses.

The second connected because as I watched the video from Mr. Meyer, I realized that this is what I wanted math to be.  I don't want to watch my daughter be frustrated doing problems 1-25 odds only on a nightly basis, I want her to be able to connect her learning to the world around her.  To be using the math she is learning to solve real problems.  To see the joy and pride that she has in the house she designed on Minecraft applied to her using math to design real houses.  To watch her ponder how to build a better tree house on the Simple Physics App but to have the lessons of that exercise made more concrete through the skill of a math expert. To see her again be doing math online during the summer, simply for the joy of doing math. To end the "hoop jumping" that my colleague Michael Delp so passionately expressed last fall.  My only remaining question is this:  If our math teachers are recognizing the futility and frustration they are causing, if the common core is set to force students to use math in a much more applied fashion, what is keeping all of us from teaching more like the video below?


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Where Do We Go From Here

Creative Commons License use from 96dpi (Andreas Levers) at Flickr
Every summer we spend time interviewing potential new staff members for jobs at Plymouth High School and as I reflect on the answers to the questions we ask, I often use my drive time home to think about how I might answer a similar question when the time comes for me to seek a principal position.  One of the questions that has always troubled me is "Where do you see yourself in five years?"  It is troubling in many respects, the first and foremost being that while wanting to sound ambitious and desiring to move up, you don't want to be viewed as being overly motivated by the desire to have the job of the person hiring you.  In today's world of education though, it troubles me more because I no longer know where we might be in five years as an industry.

When I was growing up teaching was one of the most stable professions in the world, so much so that this has become one of the chief complaints/criticisms of the industry as the reform era has dawned.  Despite recent high turnover, according to a 2011 Huffington Post article the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future estimates that 50% of teachers leave the profession within 5 years of entering it, in my educational life as a student (Lyons Township High School Class of 1987) it seemed as if my teachers never left, and where still there when I went back to visit unless they retired.  Today, with the pace of change that future can no longer be assured.  I often wonder if I will still be in education long enough to retire, not because of a decision by me to leave what I love, but rather because education as a profession will no longer exist in a form that supports the education enterprise.

I am not bemoaning change, in fact over my years in the profession I have not only embraced it but chased after it, but rather I ponder how those changes will come and what they may look like.  A few weeks ago I read an article in the Wall Street Journal titled the The $4 Million Teacher, that might show us a window into what that five years from now world might look like.  It both exhilarated and scared me at the same time.  I was exhilarated at the possibilities of how we can use technology to better connect our students to resources and truly differentiate the learning they receive.  I was scared because of the wide chasm that the system described has created between those who have access to private teachers outside of school hours and those who do not and must rely on what schools can offer within their budget restrictions.  In a perfect world, all students would have access to the best and brightest teachers and know how to connect with quality resources for learning.  In the real world, the basic economic problem of scarcity will continually raise it's head and swat away those dreams and aspirations.  It is our challenge as a nation to see how we can pursue the dream of equality in education as it competes with the myriad other budgetary goals, entitlements, and Bridges to Nowhere.

Four years ago when I came to Plymouth High School I was asked where I wanted to be in five years.  I can no longer recall my response, but here is how I would answer if asked today, and it really is not focused on the position I would want to be in, but rather the type of school system I would want to work in.

I want to be a principal in a progressive school system.  One that is on the cutting edge of education, that embraces the changes and challenges of the profession, is a leader in expanding opportunities for students and meeting them at their point of need not our point of instruction, one that is built on a foundation of continuous pursuit of knowledge to improve the craft of teaching.  I don't know where that place is exactly, but I want to be a part of making this place become that one.  

What would your answer look like?  More importantly, what are you doing today to bring that ideal place into your current one?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tivo my Life

When I was growing up Thursday nights on NBC where consistently the best night of TV.  Hill Street Blues, The Cosby Show, Cheers, etc... Each of those shows became something you had to watch.  By the 90's, when Friends, Seinfeld, Fraser, and ER dominated Thursday night and it had become Must see TV.  Today however, appointment TV has become whenever and where ever we want it to occur.  We can Tivo our shows, to watch at a later time (5 of them at once if you have Directv's Genie), can watch anything on our phones, including football, and can watch live tv on our tablets.

But tonight's post is not about television and my by gone youth.  Nor is it about disconnecting from our hyper connected world.  Rather it is about a random thought as I walked out of school.  What if I could Tivo my exercise.  I am not talking about Tivoing shows to watch them later, while I am on the treadmill, but rather being able to pause, rewind, or record my actual workouts so that they fit better into my life.  Last year I did a wellness journey for a local wellness facility.  I worked out regularly, wrote about my experience, and in general enjoyed myself.  Then, when the time to promote ended, so did my journey.

Even when I would schedule a workout or class as an appointment-it wasn't Must see TV, and thus it often went undone.  Even the negative incentive for missing workouts-money I was paying for access to the club that I was not using being money that was basically being thrown away-was not enough to get me back on track.  As our Director of Guidance said in a meeting last week, the pace of our school is incredibly fast, and it is.  That became incredibly evident this week when the first two days of school sped by with me barely being able to find time to each lunch, and students haven't even arrived yet.

This week with school beginning again, I had made the goal of beginning to work out again.  The goal being to go to 2 classes a week (cycling and yoga) and then run/walk a minimum of 3.1 miles on my own 2 days a week.  So far I am oh for two, and it is not looking better for the rest of the week.  It is not so much that I don't want to be healthier, but rather time seems to slip so quickly by, and before I know it the day is done and my workout is not.  I need to find a way to insert more time into my day.  To be able to pause what is going on, spend my 30 minutes working out, and then pick back up where I left off.  In reality I need to not Tivo my Workout, but rather Tivo my Life.

Now if I could only figure out how to invent an app for that, or at least find a working method to make exercise happen...

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Joys of the Young

I spent tonight working on a presentation for our students with my daughter.  Normally, my work stays at school, or at least gets done outside on my deck as oppesed to being done in the house with my family. Tonight was different though, first I was attempting to make some informative videos regarding computer policy at our high school, and I wanted to have some fun doing them, so I used the Tellagami App to do them. If you have not used them before, Tellagami allows you to create gamis, which are full body avatars that you can create from scratch. You can choose the gender, eye color, hair color and style, skin color, and clothing of your gami, and best of all you can give your gami an outsized head. For a background you can use a pre-made one, or upload a background of your own from your photostream. For these gamis I used noticeable places from around our school, and then enlisted my youngest daughters help to design the gami (she consulted on mine and then designed 3 of her own) and then record 3 of the four messages. Per family policy, whenever I use either of my daughters in my work, or mention them in my blog or in class they are paid, so this would cost me $5 for creative talents, but the joy it brought was well worth it. It was fun to watch her as she practiced her lines, recorded her speeches, in her normal voice and her English accent, and acted out her gestures as she spoke. The best part though were the multiple takes. For each script she read through it silently first, asking for help with words that were beyond her 4th grading reading level, then practiced two times before hitting record. After each take she would listen, critique her work, and if not satisfied start over. It was a great way to spend and evening, but the best payoff was yet to come....When we finished with our gamis, she sat down at her computer and began typing out scripts for some gamis of her own. I can't wait to see what she produces. As an added bonus, while recording our gamis, I thought that maybe we should use some of the gamis to illustrate our dress code, create one dressed appropriately, and as my duaghter would say one "not so much" (must be said in a snooty English accent for best effect). My wife then suggested that instead of using the limited dress of gamis, maybe she would model appropriate and not so much appropriate outfits and give her opinion. For a girl who changes clothes 5 times a day, this was too good a deal. So tomorrow morning we will be up early, filming some dress code videos to share with the faculty, and hopefully continuing to have a blast, even if it will cost me a few dollars more.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Celebration, Celebration, Celebration

Education is a rough business, and it gets rougher as the year goes on.  As we all gear up to head back to schools in August and September, when everyone is happy, healthy, and the year seems ready to explode with awesome possibilities, it probably is a good time to think about how we can store up those amazing moments when life/school just clicks.  We all know them, that time that Johnny after weeks of struggle finally learned how to solve quadratic equations, or when Suzie, after trembling with trepidation and reporting to the nurse's office weekly during her speech class, finally got up and gave her first speech to her classmates.  Those moments that take your breath away, send your heart a flutter, and remind you what makes our job so rewarding.

Unfortunately, those moments often seem few and far between and the moments of frustration that often lead to these great break throughs often seem to slowly, and then by February, rapidly outweigh and bury that opening day spark.  For years I have kept letters from former students on the wall of my office, so that in those moments of quite desperation I can remember that the system does work, that children learn, grow, and succeed, and that we have the privilege in getting to play a small part of that growth and development.  Another administrative friend of mine keeps an "At a Boy" file where he has stored up 30 years of such notes, moments and sentiments.  But in the digital age, might there be a better way to record those amazing learning moments and archive them for future reflection and rejuvenation.

As I was reading this morning I stumbled across this article from the New York Times about Nataly Kogan's social media start up Happier.  The premise of happier is to share, visually and in text those simple moments when life clicks and joy enters our lives.  Currently the service is currently available on the web and for iOS devices (a drawback for those using an Android smart phone) and allows you to share those moments with friends, family, your PLN, or the random stranger (admittedly a potential negative when sharing about students but in our hyper connected world sharing of student work with proper protocols has already begun to take off).

I spent some moments thinking about and browsing the site, and while I am not sure that I will sign up, or use it, the thought makes me a little, well happier, and has caused me to think about how I can store up those moments of joy to tap into when faced with moments of frustration or struggle.

How do you or will you cherish those times this year?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

My Yearly Re-Commitment to Blog More

It is July, I am at a conference, learning many great things and having some amazing thoughts that I need to process, and thus my mind travels once again to this blog and my yearly look back at how little I have produced-compared to what I want to see occur.  Inspired by George Couros of The Principal of Change who advocated today, to just get out and do it-when speaking of blogging, here I go again.

I am not sure how to begin, although I know that a basic beginning would be to set a goal and then put it out via social media so that those cyberly close to me can hold me accountable to that output.  This worked well last fall, when I blogged more often and was in a writing group where I had committed to writing on a weekly basis.  This went well, until as a group we seemed to die out as all of our lives became busier and more complex as the school year went on.

I could carve out a time in my day, and set it as an appointment not to miss, so that I would be forced to daily sit, reflect on what has occurred, what I have learned, or what I have read that day that has impacted me.  While I love this idea, it doesn't work so well when I try it for exercise-which admittedly I am not overly fond of-I also worry that like most items on my schedule it becomes tidal waved by the things going around me that are beyond the control of my schedule.  Not to make excuses about time, as I found this great graphic today to really convict me about time:

At the start of his talk today, George Couros said "The smartest person in the room, is the room." Thus, I am turning to those who read this and am asking for comments.  Those of you who blog regularly, what is the secret of your success, and how can I tap in to that?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What Will You Learn Today?

I saw this yesterday at the entry to the Idea Factory at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago while visiting with my children.  It was a simple invitation for the children to come explore and learn.  Underneath, staff members wrote questions that rotated throughout the day to guide the exploration and assist parents in helping connect the activities to broader learning.  It made me wonder why we don't begin class this way every day?

Students begin school with a desire to learn, but often by the time they reach the secondary grades the joy of learning has gone out from them, replaced by a resignation that this is what they must do because the state, their parents, and the school have mandated it.  The joy that I saw as I watched my own children (ages 9 and 13) as they explored the museum's various exhibits and thought about what they were doing, trying new things, learning as they experienced new sights and sounds was a joy for me to watch.  It also got me thinking about how we may return this joy of learning to schools and in particular about two recent reading events.

The first reading event came when our trip to Chicago began, as I believe all family vacations should begin, with a trip to the local library to pick out books to read while we were gone.  I chose Bill O'Reilly and Matt Dugard's follow up to their best seller Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy which was good but not as good as Killing Lincoln.  It was my daughter's choices that intrigued me.  My youngest chose books that were stories about gymnastics, not surprising since she longs to be the next Gabby Douglass.  Additionally, she is my child that already knows what she wants to do when she grows up-go to Purdue and become a veterinarian.

It was the choices of my oldest daughter that intrigued me.  She did not choose novels, a book from a series, or books geared towards teens.  Rather she chose three books on photography.  For the past 6 months or so she has been saving up her money to purchase a new digital camera with removable lenses.  She has posted over 1100 pictures in the 4 months she has been allowed to have an instagram account and has even set up a secondary instagram account for her more artsy pictures.  She loves photography and it was very cool to see her choose to read and learn more about it.  Will this lead to a future job?  I am not sure, but for a student who when I ask what she wants to do says, "I don't know" it was a joy to see her follow her passion.

The second reading event occurred the morning of our museum trip when I read following article on 20% Time by AJ Juliani in Edutopia and this blog post on 10 Reasons to Try 20% Time also from AJ.  The article highlighted how schools could utilize this concept from Google to help inspire their learners to engage more in the learning process.  In short, it would allow students to daily ask of themselves "What do I Want to Learn Today?" and then pursue that learning.  Moving to a system would require a radical change by schools, teachers, and administrators-most because it would require the system to allow students to be in more charge of their learning and require us to trust that they were doing so-which might be the greatest challenge.

We regularly speak about learning about our students so that we can tap in to their interests to help connect learning to something they enjoy when they don't see the connection to what they are learning.  But what do we do, when what they are passionate about doesn't fit in to one of our curricular areas or can be measured by a state mandated test at the end of the year?  One way to start this process though may be through giving students a limited amount of time to define what they want to learn, and then supporting that pursuit at the same level we support their learning of state mandated items.

Special thanks to my colleague Reid Gault (@reidgault) the principal of Lincoln Junior High School in Plymouth, IN.  In the past 6 months, since he finished the book Inevitable,  he has been pushing my thinking about how we educate students.  He has continued to innovate at his school, bringing in student choices that allow them to choose their educational path.  In the past year Lincoln has begun a school within a school via the New Tech Network  focusing on project based learning and this year will add a SOLE program in which students in the SOLE study hall will have the opportunity to choose their own learning path to explore a passion of their own.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Book Review-Patrick Lencioni's Death by Meeting

Every once in a while during my reading I come across a book that is easy to read, completely relate-able to my life, and as I read it something I begin to wish I had read 6 months or even 6 years earlier.  Patrick Lencioni's Death by Meeting is just such a book.  In a simple fable, Lencioni accurately describes the feelings of loathing that most people experience when thinking about or attending meetings.  He then, continues to build through his thoroughly enjoyable tale of Yip Software a method to improve meetings along with the rationale as to why his method will work.  The book is a quick read at 258 pages and includes an executive summary of 35 pages for those who do not have the time to enjoy the full fable-although I recommend that you take the time to do so as it truly is a compelling argument for his methods.

In short, Lencioni identifies two main problems with meetings.  The first being a lack of drama or conflict during the meetings and a lack of context for the meetings.  Utilizing easily identifiable analysis that compares meetings to types of television shows he guides the reader to four styles of meetings and ways to use them to improve communication, effiency, and most importantly engagement in meetings.  It is a book that has helped me reflect deeply on the meetings I have been in charge of in the past, recognize many of the problems with those meetings, and caused me to think deeply about changes that I am looking forward to implementing for the next school year.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Time Management Post

Yesterday at our school corporation retreat, Justin Maust of Leader Legacy spoke to us about how to develop a winning team.  In the course of his entertaining and enlightening seminar, he discussed his approach to time management, a binder in which he plans out each day to the minute on the left hand side of the page, and then on the right hand side notes what actually happens. The world keeps spinning at what seems to be a more rapid pace as our lives become more connected, information becomces accessible at all times, and the distractions that keep us from work more prevalent.  Due to this, many applications have sprung up in the past few years to help us digitally remain on task.  Two of my favorites have become Wunderlist and 30/30.

Wunderlist is a digital planning tool that harkens back to the old Franklin/Covey Day Planner, which by the way I often wonder way I have not seen a digital version of those books that were so prevalent in the 90s and early 2000s.  It allows you to input tasks into a list tasks, break long term projects in to smaller tasks, set due dates with email reminders, and have the satisfactory feeling of crossing items off your list.  It does not, at this time, allow you to schedule events or schedule to plan your day-as the Day Planner did.  It does however have the major plus of moving across digital access providers.  The app will sync between your mobile device, tablet, and computer, so no matter what device you are using to look at it, the information is up to date and accurate.  I have found Wunderlist to be a great way to organize the daily tasks that I need to complete, keep me on track with long range planning-although I wish the reminder system was more seemless and thus effective.  It often seems as if the reminders never come, even when set.  The greatest joy though comes from being able to digitally cross items off the list.

30/30 is an entirely different productivity app.  It combines a task timer with your task list and operates under the principal that you need to switch up your tasks throughout the day to keep your mind fresh and focused.  With this in mind, the creators initially suggested that you utilize 30 minute increments as the max time, and switch between tasks on that conitnuum, allowing yourself to go back to a task multiple times a day, until completed.  New versions of the software have removed the language about splitting tasks into 30 minute increments, and instead use a 50 minutes of work with a 10 minute break as to how to divide up the hour.

This is the tool that I have come to rely on when I want to be my most focuses and productive.  The basic idea works and gets you into a rhythm of work.   We too often allow the minor distractions of life, and they are many, to knock us off our pace and this can help you to stay focused on the task(s) at hand.  The biggest key is staying focused on that task, knowing that later in the day you will have time for those distractions that creep in.  So in my use of 30/30 I schedule in those distractions-though not at a 30 minute block.  I have time for email, eating, reading for fun, checking twitter, etc... Knowing that I will have time to do those activities in a reasonable amount of time helps me focus on what needs to be done in the moment.  It even will block sounds from outside the app, so email and other alerts don't sound to distract you from the task at hand while you wait for the timer to buzz.  The only negative, from an operations point, is that it will not sync across devices.

Additionally, I believe that an app like 30/30 can be a great tool for educators to introduce students to, tell them how they are using it to manage distractions and tasks they are working on, and then allow them to utilize it for that purpose in class.  In many ways it gamifys being focused and it is my hope that this would help students to be less distracted.

The only negative to 30/30 is being slightly OCD I get locked in to switching when the timer goes off, and it sometimes delays finishing a thought while I write.  It can also keep me from good distractions while reading-like connecting multiple articles and thoughts and then writing about them which happened to me this past Sunday and lead to me writing this review instead of my thoughts on two books I was reading and how they connected to a news article I read.  In my focus to stay on my reading tasks, I lost the thoughts that would have begun that post for me.  Sometimes even in focusing, being too rigid can cause loss as well.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Power of a Network

I have always loved this commercial from Cisco about the Human Network.  So much so that I think I over use it in presentations when I discuss The Weidner School of Inquiry @PHS and our goal to help our students create professional learning networks that will help them to communicate their ideas to a broader audience.  Yesterday, the reason why I relate so well to this commercial became clear in my visit to Niles New Tech Entrepreneurial Academy in Niles, Michigan.  I was there to meet with the Director, Jerry Hotlgren, but since he was ill, I met with Mike Vota to discuss their Trust Card program and how they utilize it in working with student discipline.  

I have spent the last month or so thinking  deeply about student discipline, and how the simple discipline  does not seem to work.  There needs to be something beyond punishment to truly change behavior.  In the course of my searching, I had been reading a lot about the concept of Restorative Justice in particular through reading Howard Zehr and Ali Gohar's Little Book of Restorative Justice.  The idea behind Restorative Justice is that their is not only punishment for one's actions, but a large focus is placed on restitution and restoring community.  This approach fits with a lot of my core beliefs about discipline and has been attractive to me.  In order to learn more, I wanted to have an in depth discussion with a school that is utilizing these concepts.  My discussion with Mike provided this opportunity, gave me a framework to think about and share with my staff, and lead to some great thinking.  

Ultimately, what connects me to the Cisco commercial and appeals to me about Restorative Justice, is not the idea of a network.  Networking is powerful, don't get me wrong, It connects us to other people, places, and ideas.  The ability of the Net to do this has greatly enhanced both my learning as a professional and increased my awareness of the world around me.  The key though is not the network itself.  Rather, it is the relationships that come out of that network.  

As a part of the New Tech Network we have the ability to receive training, to access a data base of PBL lessons, and to attend conferences held throughout the year in which we can grow as leaders and facilitators of learning.  The greatest strength though is in the relationships we develop with the people of the network.  The short and long conversations that we have in the hallways of those conferences, the ability to call up the people we have met and seek their greater wisdom, and in the discussions with other passionate educators that rejuvenate our own passions.  It is those relationships that need to be the foundation of our culture as educators, and it is the restoration of those relationships that needs to be a foundational piece we hope to have school discipline lead to long term change in behaviors.  True change comes when we connect with others, and as Jack Nicholson says in As Good as it Gets, they "make us want to be better humans".

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Conversation with a Futurist

Two Thursdays ago our school corporation had the pleasure of conducting a meeting via go to meeting with futurist David Houle in which he discussed with us the future of education and his conception of Flow.  He focused much of his talk about how the decade of 2010-2020 will be the transformation decade, in which all of the change of the last 10,000 years will take place in the next 100, with this 10 year period kicking that massive change off.

His concept of Flow involves three areas, The Flow to Global-in which the only boundaries will be planetary,  the Flow to Individual-the explosion of choice where power will move from institutions to individuals, and finally Accelerated Electronic Connectedness-cell phone ubiquity.

What struck me most from his conversation though was his idea that the concept of place no longer exists.  He explains this by talking about how we can now be anywhere, and connect to someone anywhere in almost no time at all.  This is not a new idea, the telegraph allowed people to quickly send messages from place to place, but you had to go pick them up or have them delivered to you.  The telephone brought both voice and direct connection-as long as you were in your home or office-and the cell phone made that connection mobile.

The scope of this change though hit me in two different ways.  The first was the way that cell phones have mobilized communication.  Freeman Hrabowski, the President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, told a story at a conference I attended in which he spoke of how when he was growing up, and Star Trek was on, he kept hearing that some day phones would be able to go anywhere-he just couldn't conceive of the idea because he kept wondering how you would keep the cords from being tangled.  The shift that the mobile phone brought changed how we connect with other, where we connect with others, and made the world a smaller place.

But cell phones did not truly change the concept of place.  Yes, they allowed us to communicate with others wherever we were.  The truly radical change though came with the advent of the smartphone.  Now not only could we connect with anyone, anywhere, at anytime.  Now we could share our ideas, pictures, videos, and thoughts with anyone, anywhere, at anytime.

Two examples, one from American history and one from my personal experience, solidified this concept for me.  The example from American history is the letter writing of John and Abigail Adams.  While John was stationed in Europe during the American Revolutionary War, and after until 1789, he and Abigail exchanged 258 of the over 1100 letters that they wrote each other in their lifetimes.  What struck me about these letter exchanges, in light of Mr. Houle's discussion of place no longer existing, is that it took each of these letters three months to travel to it's recipient, and that was when the letters were able to get through and safely cross the ocean during war time.  The strain on the relationship was such that Abigail referred to the time as her "widowhood".

This leads directly to my personal experience.  While I work long hours, I am blessed with having few requirements to travel that take me away from my family overnight.  The week prior to Mr. Houle speaking though, I was in Berkley, CA at the New Tech Network Spring Leadership Summit.  During this time, while I missed my family, they were always no more than a text, email, or instagram photo away.  In fact when I returned the principle of a neighboring elementary school commented that he enjoyed the pictures I was sending with my tweets as I walked around Berkley.

The world has now shrunk to fit in the pocket of our pants, and we are no longer cut off from either those we love or the work we do, unless we choose to unplug ourselves.  This is truly the game changer, as the Digital Generation continues to grow up in a plugged in world, the ways and interfaces for this plugging in will change and further shrink their concepts of time and place.  Google Glass will only be the beginning of an ever more connected life experience for all of us.  How we continue to adapt as educators to a world where all resources are available at the touch of a few keys, will determine how well our institutions survive this decade of disruption.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Leaving the Water, Before it Boils Me Over

Image From Joyce Howard
When I was a boy scout we would go to camp every summer.  One of the myths of camp was that if you put a frog in a bucket of boiling water it would jump out immediately. However, if you put the frog in unheated lake water and then boiled the water, the frog would not jump out and would eventually explode.  We never tried this as we were not intentionally cruel to animals, but the story has stayed with me most of my life.  This past year has had me reflecting on this phenomenon a lot of late and feeling very connected to the frog.

This has been a year of challenges.  Taking on a new role within our school corporation, trying to find time balancing my old job with supporting the facilitators and learners at the Weidner School of Inquiry@PHS, and also stretching myself physically, emotionally, and publicly.

Given that introduction, it may seem that I am relating to the frog being thrown into the hot water, and wanting to jump out, but that has not been were my connection to the frog has been.  My connection has been to the frog who is put in the lake water, and then does not respond to the heating water around him, and thus explodes.

Let me explain.  As we go about our daily business of life, we become familiar and comfortable with our surroundings.  We often become so familiar that we don't notice the changes that are happening, but often we don't notice the changes that need to happen, and this is the greatest risk, this is where the frog gets fried.  It is not that he doesn't recognize the water getting warmer, it is that he doesn't recognize the change that needs to occur-leaving the water.

With this in mind, there are two events from this year that have stretched me personally, that has had carry over benefits to my professional work.  The most recent is flying to California for the New Tech Network's Spring Leadership Summit.  I have not flown for 12.5 years.  It is not that, I have not had opportunities to fly, but rather I simply refuse to do things that would force me to fly.  As I right this though, I am looking out the window of my room at the Claremont Resort in Berkley, CA after having flown from Chicago the day before.  I am enjoying an incredible view of the San Fransisco Bay and the city skyline in the distance.  It is something that I would never have experienced had I not jumped out of the bucket and what was comfortable.  Additionally, I have been able to spend some very focused time thinking about my school, where we started this year, how far we have come, and ways we need to continue to grow in the coming years.  I feel energized and excited to finish the year strong.

The second event happened earlier this month when I participated in Dancing with the Stars Marshall County.  I am not a dancer, I have very little rhythm, but over a three month period I went from novice Salsa dancer to performing this dance in front of several hundred people.

It was way beyond the comfort of the bucket, but it taught be something new, gave my students a new perspective on who I am, and gave me a sense of confidence on the dance floor.  From my initial tentative steps I was able to know the dance so well that in early rehearsal performances I was able to adapt the dance to where the music was when we got slightly off pace.  Later that night, this new confidence allowed me to have a blast dancing with my youngest daughter.

Whether the challenges we take on be personal or professional, physical or emotional, the key is that we venture away from the bucket so that we can notice when our environment begins to change, and we can adapt to those changes rather than be boiled over by them.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An Avalanche of Information

Video Note:  I tried really hard to find a giant snowball that starts small and get ginormous as it rolls down they hill before smashing into a ski resort, but since that search lead me to nothing, I thought this video from the Vin Diesel action movie Triple X was a great representation as well.

Sometime in late October I had breakfast with a former professor of mine, Mark Soto.  Mark is a theology professor at Grace College in Winona Lake, IN and is one of the smartest people I know.  Whenever I am fortunate enough to connect with Dr. Mark I leave with a lot to ponder and think about.

This day was no different.  As our conversation wound from how Jesus handled tough conversations to the current state of education in America, Dr. Mark passed on to me a great explanation of how he thought education had changed.  When Mark began his studies students would choose a field and then spend a great deal of time immersed in learning all of the information that there was to learn in their field.  This mastery of content was the goal of learning.

He then pivoted to what he viewed as the key change.  The amount of information is no longer master-able   The internet and the connectivity that it provides has made this an impossible task.  Rather, the goal of education should now be to give students the tools needed to find, evaluate, and curate this information.  In the back of my brain this was not a new revelation, it was something that I had been thinking about and preaching in many forms for several years now.

What it wasn't was a concrete experience of within my life.  Then Christmas Break came.  My goal for Christmas Break was to read daily, finish several books, and pair down the list of reading in my Pocket app account.  Eventually pairing down, by reading not deleting, my pocket account soon became my over riding endeavor.  Try as I might though, it just continued to grow.  Even after spending hours daily at Starbuck's reading while having my pumpkin spice latte, I was not closer to getting to the end of the list.  In fact it continued to grow, even as I read most of what was coming in on my Feedly account.  Even when I eliminated things that I was not truly interested in, the list would not go down.

Nor should I expect it to.  Even with an infinite amount of time, I could not conquer the list, because never before in time has the amount we know expanded so rapidly and been so accessible.  For our students it will continue to do so.  Thus, while content knowledge is important, Dr. Mark is right.  We need to teach our learners to find outstanding and enlightening things to read, show them how to evaluate the information that they are taking in, help them develop the organizational skill of curating, and then model for them how to reflect and retain the information that they take in.  Education is no longer about memorizing dates, facts, and formulas.  It is about accessing, evaluating, and refining what we want to learn, then contributing our knowledge to the every growing catalog of humanity.