Sunday, May 1, 2016

Breaking out of to-do list tunnel vision

I love my Moleskine notebook, even though people make fun of me for the stack of black, dated volumes on my desk in an age where it seems like there should be an app for this. My favorite part of the Bullet Journal system is the check-lists. I absolutely love checking off those little boxes, but sometimes I get caught up in the to-do-list and lose sight of what it's for.

I guess you could say I'm goal oriented. I even like SMART goals, which many educators have come to dread. Under the new state Teacher Evaluation Plan, we have to set goals for our students that must be:

Relevant and

That's why I started listening really closely when Charles Duhigg started talking about the problems with SMART goals. For one thing, people often just start focusing on whatever quantifiable goal they can get done and lose sight of the big picture. Their job becomes all about checking off boxes.

I can relate. I often find myself focussing on making phone calls, submitting P.O.s, filing paperwork with the State, entering data, making more check-lists, and other tasks that need to be done, because they are easy to measure and complete. Or I start a bunch of new initiatives: new rubrics, progress tracking and reporting systems, a kitchen crew, a fitness challenge, a Quiet Study and Support Center, tracking more and more data, without stopping to ask if all of this getting me closer to my real goal.

Wait, what's my real goal again?

The answer to the SMART goal dilemma, Duhigg says, is stretch goals: big audacious goals that will make sure our SMART goals are actually getting us where we want to go. Start with the big goal, says Duhigg, and write it at the top of the page, and then break it down into SMART goals. Our stretch goals don't need to be SMART. We use them as a guide to build a list of appropriate SMART goals.

So how's this for a stretch goal: To make every one of my students really ready for the college and/or career of their choice. A whole list of SMART goals could explode out of that one stretch goal: assess current college and career readiness of each student, determine areas of weakness, identify strategies to support each student, etc.

But hang on. Is that really an audacious goal? Isn't that what school is supposed to do?

That's the other problem with the SMART goal habit--the "A" makes us aim too low. High expectations is one of the key ingredients to student success, and we need to aim higher than we really expect people to attain.

So let's take it up a notch: We'll bring in at-risk students, and every one of them will exceed State benchmarks for college and career readiness. And taking it even further, they'll be like arrows shot from a bow, already on their way to making the world a better place.

I've had something like this in mind since the beginning, so I'm hoping that all of the initiatives we've started this year are moving us in the right direction, but I also know I need more focus in my day-to-day activities. I need a compass needle that will keep drawing me back to this goal when I get bogged down in the little stuff, something to re-calibrate me every day as I make my check-lists.

And this is just one strand of my life that needs this. I need stretch goals for my family life, relationships, and physical and mental health. I need to remember that I started Crossfit for stress management and not to make fitness the focus of my life. I need to remember that as important as my job is to me, I'm really working, first and foremost, to support my family, so they can't take a back seat.

Getting bogged down in the minutiae can get us off track in life, plodding along with our eyes on the ground, only to finally turn our heads up and realize we've walked in a circle, tired, bored and burned out.

Every day, we need to start by asking ourselves: "Where am I headed, again? And why?" We need to break out of the tunnel vision, look around at the landscape, refocus on the goal in the distance, and ask, "Now, what do I need to do today to get closer?"

Sunday, April 24, 2016

What if school was like a sport?

What if school was like an athletic team practice?

I was in a Twitter chat yesterday morning on the topic of school culture, and one teacher said a positive school culture "feels like home, looks like an athletic team practice."

What a beautiful and powerful image! What if kids came in all fired up (and maybe nervous), asking what the workout was going to be? What if school was like CrossFit for the mind? What would that look like?

To begin with, it would be highly structured. As I've written before, I've gone through a paradigm shift since I've been at the Depot. I used to think the less structure, the better. I imagined an organic, self-organizing, project-based learning environment in which students would be naturally motivated to learn. I found out the independent learning process needs to be scaffolded. At the Depot, we give the students tremendous freedom and hope they'll engage in complex projects on their own, but they often don't, and I think it's because they lack skills and confidence. They need more structure at the beginning. Then you remove the scaffolding as they progress until they are ready for full-blown independent learning. (Click here for a rough sketch of what that might look like.)

That structure would include plenty of explicit instruction, drill, and practice in basic skills with tons of feedback. Students need to master basic skills--math, reading, communication, planning, time management, self-control, motivation, and a sense of self-confidence before they will be able to design and tackle complex projects on their own.

Complex tasks are, after all, made of of simple parts put together. You may be able to teach them in context, but there's a reason basketball practice is not all made up of scrimmages.

As a thought experiment, I tried to imagine applying a project-based learning approach to a skill like Olympic lifting: "OK guys, in order to get stronger and be able to lift more weight, I'm just going to have you guys build a barn!" Nope. Won't work. Olympic lifting is a set of very complex movements and skills. Check out this video of just one movement--the snatch. It's even harder than it looks, and barn raising won't teach you that. On the other hand, how about training in all of the Olympic lifting movements and then going to the barn raising. Now we're talking. You may need to be told what to lift, but I'll bet you won't have any trouble lifting it. In other words, extract the skills, drill, and then reinsert them into the context, and do it all deliberately and intentionally.

Students working on their planking challenge.
Finally, in a world where school is a sport, there would be lots of goal setting and tracking, and tons of motivation, engagement, energy and celebration of small wins, big achievements and effort. Some of our students have been working on fitness goals that they set a couple of months ago. One group is working towards a 3:30 plank. They meet every day to increase by 10 seconds. Imagine if students approached all of their learning the same way?

I used to imagine that just by doing relevant and interesting projects the kids would learn. Now I see that is wishful thinking. Instead, let's turn the equation around--give them a strong set of essential skills first--and then they'll be ready for the heavy lifting of complex and creative tasks. They'll have the skills and they'll be ready for the game... and life.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

This post is for a student

The guinea pig was missing, and they had to solve the crime.

The bloody guinea pig footprints were the most obvious evidence, but they they would have to analyze three more challenging clues: fingerprints, hair left at the scene, and blood spatter patterns.

It was all set up by one of our seniors. She's exactly the sort of student who thrives in this kind of school: independent, self-motivated, and focused on a passionate interest. In her case, that interest is forensic science.

The students, as you will see, loved it, but this senior has such high standards for herself that she could only see what went wrong.

This post is for her and all of my students who've had the wind in their faces for so long they have trouble seeing their successes and strengths.

This is for her, because the students did it. They took notes as she gave them instructions. They looked under microscopes at hair they collected from the scene and compared it to hair from suspects. They experimented with the fake blood, dropping it from different heights until it matched the drops on the floor of the bathroom. They collected fingerprints from suspects and compared the whorls and loops to those found on the bathroom sink.

With the microscopes and hair, they narrowed it down to me and one student. They came to my office with a warrant and dragged me into the Community Room to interrogate me. They asked me about the suspicious bandage on my chin--the one that matched the scenario they had come up with. They asked me about the fingerprints, and finally, they asked me about the search history that had been pulled from my computer which included searches for guinea pig recipes (they are surprisingly common, by the way).

To sum it up, they had fun, even those who said they didn't, and they did a bunch of things they'd never done before, hopefully learning some critical thinking along they way.

But it didn't get off to a good start. The fingerprint dusting technique didn't work, and this student leader was ready to give up. True, she could have been better prepared. For example, she definitely should have tried the fingerprinting technique out before hand. But we've all been there, under-prepared, and every failure is a lesson learned. Next time, I told her, she'll be prepared.

And of course, as every teacher and leader knows,  "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." No matter how much we plan, we need to be ready for the unpredictable interactions of our plan with human beings and the rest of reality. Our plan is not always at fault--it's just the nature of the universe to throw us curve balls, keep us on our toes and keep us strong.

"Failure," as a Honda engineer says in my all-time favorite video, "is the by-product of pushing the envelope." That's one reason I love CrossFit--it makes me push up against that envelope at least 3 or 4 times per week. I fail at something every time I work out. Every WOD kicks my butt and humbles me. Every Olympic lifting movement I do is a messy mixture of correct and incorrect parts, mostly incorrect.

School and work are fitness for the mind. Push the envelope, and aim high enough that you can expect failure, because failure is fuel. It gives us information to improve, and if we persevere, that's why we'll succeed, as Michael Jordan so powerfully put it. SpaceX persevered through four catastrophic failures of their Falcon rocket's ocean landings, but on their fifth try, just yesterday, they hit it: success.

As Mazer Rackham said in Ender's Game, "No one but the enemy will ever teach you how to destroy and conquer. Only the enemy shows you where you are weak."

In one sense, failure is our enemy, but in another, our friend. It shows us where we can improve, so that we can.

So this is my message to you, my forensic-scientist-to-be senior, and all of my students who have met with frustration so often that they can't see their success--whose lives have been just one huge obstacle after another:

1. Be open to seeing your successes, like the fun our students had with your workshop, even if they're mixed with failure, because you really are capable and successful, and

2. Embrace failure, because it is just a by-product of growth. It doesn't mean you're a failure. It means just the opposite: It means you are improving.

3. Don't expect perfection. It's a myth. Expect improvement. Demand constant improvement from yourself. You deserve it, and you are capable of it.

4. And you are improving. You're already awesome, you've already passed through so much fire, and you're only getting better. I can see it.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Can you tip a school culture?

“Character, then, isn't what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be. It isn't a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits... Character is... dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context.” 

-Malcolm Gladwell

How is the context of our school influencing what we would call the character of our students?

How many of the negative behaviors we see are the natural, predictable result of the social environment and structure of the school?

Listening to Gladwell's Tipping Point got me thinking about these questions again. He calls it "the power of context," and it reminds me of one of Chip and Dan Heath's powerful principles: "What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem."

Peers, for example, have such a powerful influence on human behavior that Gladwell writes, "A child is better off... living in a troubled family in a good neighborhood than living in a good family in a troubled neighborhood." That's why Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, figured he had to reach at least 60% of a neighborhood in order for his efforts to have a lasting  impact on kids.

So what happens if you put a bunch of struggling students from tough family backgrounds, with motivation problems, negative experiences with school, and  social/emotional challenges, all together in one class or school?

It's obvious.

And what's the solution? That's also obvious. You make sure you integrate the struggling kids with good peer role models, as many of them as possible.

At the Depot, we're working on this, but I'm also interested in finding other tipping point triggers we could use.

Gladwell argues that the 1980s NYC crime epidemic was actually curbed by scrubbing graffiti from the subway trains and stopping fare-beaters from jumping the turnstiles. These small changes sent "signals" that had a cascading effect throughout the city.

I'm wondering if there are signals we're sending that could be changed or new ones we could send that might help us "tip" the Depot into the higher-expectations, self-motivated environment we're shooting for.

We don't have any graffiti on the walls--we have a beautiful building, but is there disorder, are there little things we could address. Are there ways we could change the structure so the culture would shift? Are there keystone habits, key changes that would have a cascading impact?

Some of our efforts so far this year include:

  • Pushing more kids to take college entrance exams, talking more about college, and taking them on college tours
  • Encouraging fitness and healthy eating with our new "kitchen crew," free smoothie ingredients, and our "fitness challenge"
  • Increased accountability and tracking of student progress with a new competency rubric and Google Drive-based data tracking
  • Clarified expectations and forms for students
  • Increased academic support through our new "Quiet Study and Support Center"
  • Pointing students we can't serve to other environments that can hopefully serve them better

School culture and climate are so key, but they seem to have so much inertia. Gladwell's hypothesis gives me hope that they might be changed more easily than I expect. "Look at the world around you," he writes, "It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push--in just the right place--it can be tipped."

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easy diplomas, high expectations, and equity

Too many of these kids are struggling, and it's not their fault. They are the victims of systems and histories that make it all but impossible for them to stay above the waves. But knowing this, what can an educator do?

This question's been swirling around in my head since reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, but finally an answer to these questions is starting to coalesce in my mind--a solution that I think is truly equitable.

If you've been following this blog, you know we've been working on raising the bar for our students while, at the same time, increasing supports. But you also know that we've been realizing our limitations, and that, to some of our students, support has meant helping them find a school environment that works better for them. And for some, raising the bar could mean they don't make it in time for a diploma in June.

And then there's Between the World and Me, challenging me to take a hard look at what I am doing and whether I really am a support or just another hound at the heels of these kids, just more wind in their face, as Coates' put it.

Am I wrong in not wanting to just give the kids a diploma--in wanting to hold them accountable, push them to improve, and have them leave here ready for what's next?

Which is more just or fair: to deny a student a diploma because you have high expectations, or to give him a diploma no matter what, so he is not further disadvantaged by lacking that piece of paper?

According to Paul Gorski, author of Reaching and teaching Students in Poverty, high expectations is one of the things these kids need most, but they also need that slip of paper, don't they?

How do I balance their need for a diploma with their need for high expectations, solid skills, and college/career readiness?

So I turned to a mentor for advice, one with experience working with disadvantaged kids and teaching administrators how to work with them. He encouraged me to take a two-pronged approach: One in the short term "here and now," and another for "the long game."

In the short term, he said, I need to try to support the students in my care as much as possible, including advocating for their removal to a program that works better for them, if necessary. At the same time, I need to continue to work on building a program that will work better for more kids in the long term. (And that's a huge undertaking, so take it a step at a time, and be patient.)

And as far as diplomas and justice, here's my take-away from our conversation:

No. I'm not wrong for not wanting to just hand out diplomas. This is one of the inequities of the American educational system: it "launders" diplomas instead of providing kids with the support and preparation they need. But at the same time, it's better to graduate a student despite a lack of readiness than to kick him out, as long as it's an ability issue and not an attitude issue. If the problem is their attitude--if they're not trying, then granting them a diploma they haven't earned is just going to reinforce their central problem. But if they're trying, and their lack of ability is keeping them from meeting the standards, then the equitable thing to do is to personalize the standards. You can have high standards without them all being the same.

And I think that's the key. High standards for all, increased support for all, but equity doesn't mean uniformity.

The goal is that every student will leave ready for what's next, but if we can't do this, at least we can keep from harming them further. In some cases, that may mean granting a diploma, in others, withholding it.

And hopefully soon, when we all, as a society, awaken from the dream that we are an equitable one, we'll really start doing whatever it takes to reach them all.