Saturday, January 30, 2016

A beautiful day at a different kind of school

A beautiful day in the life of the Depot. A picture of digging deep to build a real support structure and real community.

The student kitchen crew ran like clockwork. They must have set a new personal speed record serving up their popular Texas-sized French toast.

After breakfast, we gathered in the Communtiy Room for "Pick-me-Up," a daily whole-school lesson. Not everyone was engaged in Part 3 of my lesson on "Community/Human Ecology," but most were busy offering up examples of win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose situations in human relationships--answering the questions on the slides, like:
Which is better?
A) You gain, your competitor loses
B) You both lose
C) You both gain
It was interesting to see them apply this to how they played the "prisoner's dilemma" game two weeks ago and whether they played with a win-win or lose-lose strategy. It stirred up some emotions.

And I'm pretty happy with the little poem/rap we started it all off with:
that branch of biology
that’s about the dependency
of one living entity
on just about every
living thing,
either productively
or destructively,
in animosity
or harmony.
We're digging deep here--asking questions that get to the heart of what it means to be human and live in a community, and I'm psyched to continue this lesson by exploring "The Chimpanzee and our family tree"--a lesson in human origins and what it means for human relationships.

After Pick-Me-Up, a student was in my office for one-on-one support and quiet study, part of our new Tier 2 support system at the Depot. He was focused, productive, wrote some amazing things, and completed an assignment that he'd been stuck on for months.

At 10:00, I headed down to the kitchen to supervise two kitchen crew members as they cooked a pot of home made ramen for their classmates, complete with fresh ginger and green onions. It was so cool when one of them came up to my office afterwards to offer me a cup. It was worth cheating on my grain-free diet.

Later, it was just as powerful to sit with our two psychology and counselling interns and talk about their work with our students. Many of our students struggle with the effects of very difficult histories and home lives, and the compassion and professionalism of these two people is awesome. It reminded me of Geoffrey Canada's approach of doing "whatever it takes" to make sure kids succeed.

After lunch we have "Book Teams." In my group, we're reading Ender's Game (love that book--Ender is so hard core). We share our thoughts after every chapter of silent reading.

Then comes the read aloud. For that, we're reading Arthurian legend--very challenging to read, with awkward, old-fashioned words and sentence structures. I told the group that we are going to approach this like CrossFit. It's tough stuff, so we'll scale the "workouts" until they can handle them--they can read aloud a sentence or a page, depending on how difficult it is for them, but they all have to read something as we pass the book around.

Next, we transitioned into our weekly "Friday Fitness" block. Students can choose from a variety of activities, including yoga, a hike on a local trail, ping-pong, and Dance Dance Revolution (those last two are new offerings for the winter). It was so beautiful to see these young people having such a good time and getting active. There were smiles on faces that haven't seen a whole lot of smiles lately.

Shannon, one of our advisors, wrapped up the day with her weekly "Kick-Me-Out" presentation. Students gave each other "shout-outs" and then reflected on what they were doing in the pictures of the week's activities that flashed across the screen and anonymous quotes of their classmates, like "My internship is the best thing that's ever happened to me." We ended by watching this cool video of one human making another very happy (definitely worth a few minutes if you haven't seen it).

Maybe this smoothly-running and awesome day was just a fluke, but I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful it's the fruit of our increased structure and support. And I'm hopeful that as we continue to build strong support structures, we can increase the productivity and harmony of this little community.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Bees, rubrics and teacher evaluation

My hives this morning
The new teacher evaluation (TEVAL) system is the source of tons of anxiety, conflict, and even anger among teachers here in CT. I've seen excellent veteran teachers crying at staff meetings when discussing the new system of formal observations, rubrics and ratings. Obviously, something's wrong with the system, or is it? What if it's all in the way we look at it?

I've been through the new TEVAL process twice as a teacher, but as a new administrator this year, I've been experiencing the system for the first time from the other side. As I've been conducting formal observations of my teachers and writing them up, I watched myself go through a shift in thinking.

I can be a bit overly critical, and in my own life I am always trying to push myself harder to improve (though I know I've got plenty of blind spots), and I'm afraid this was coming through in my write-ups and conversations with my staff about the process. In fact, I was worried about tensions and conflicts developing.

Then I realized the problem: I've been looking at this all wrong. I am not the driver of this process--I am just part of a structure.

I firmly believe that with the right structure in place, everything else falls into place. That's why we're working on building a structure at the Depot that will allow every student to thrive. That's why last year, I spent tons of time building a framework that would allow my biology students to thrive. As humans, we need the right structure of societal rules, relationships, health, and other systems if we are going to flourish. But the right structure is not about authority and hierarchies. That's not how humans work. That's not how anything works.

Bees are a great example. A lot of people think bees are ruled by the queen--that she somehow directs the activities of the hive, but that's not true at all. The whole colony is guided by a complex system of hormones and rules built into their tiny brains that determine how they interact with each other and the environment. The seemingly intelligent behaviour of the hive just emerges naturally from this set of rules.

Nature uses structures like that, not hierarchies. Humans don't function best in authority structures, but in collaborative communities.

That's how I'm seeing my new role within the TEVAL system. I'm not at the top at all. I'm just part of the structure--a structure designed to improve our schools. We're all interacting with it--its rules, rubrics and reviews of practice. We're also interacting with the rules that govern human behavior in general--rules about relationships and what makes humans thrive.

It's not about, "Here's how you need to improve." It's about, "How can we use this structure to improve together?"

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The real work is the conversations

They were trying to come to an agreement about how their teams would play their next moves in our simulation of the "prisoner's dilemma." His reply was put to music, and they agreed to abandon their selfish, cut-throat strategies and start cooperating. It was a fun example of what Kerry Patterson and his colleagues call a "crucial conversation."

According to Patterson and his team, "Any time you find yourself stuck in some area of performance or improvement that's important to you, what is keeping you stuck is very often one or two crucial conversations that you're not holding or not holding well."

Lately, I feel like my life has become one big string of crucial, and difficult,  conversations. It's been like CrossFit for my relationship skills. And that's OK. In fact, maybe that's how it should be.

If my job as an educator is to do whatever it takes to see every one of my students succeed, then it's going to take lots of intentional, intensive one-on-one conversations.

It's going to take difficult conversations with a student about her depression, another about her difficult home life, another about behaviors that need to change. It's going to mean conversations about a student's need to improve his social skills or manage his anger, or another's failure to progress and need for extra support, or whether this school is the right place for him.

It's going to mean uncomfortable conversations about teacher evaluations, fundamental beliefs, and facing facts about ourselves and our relationships--conversations that create what the authors of Crucial Conversations call "a common pool of meaning." They are conversations about compromise. They are relational negotiations.

If my job as a human is to maximize every one of my relationships, it's going to take the same kind of effort, at home and at work. It's going to be messy, but good, and this is a big part of my philosophy of life: I want to immerse myself in it, pain and all, difficulty and all.

In our game, both teams had been using a destructive and selfish strategy. Their negotiation was an effort to change that, but in the next round, his team betrayed her trust, and maintained their destructive strategy in order to win the game. I guess his team had realized how difficult their side of the bargain would be and wasn't willing to follow through.

Of course, I'm hoping for better results from my crucial conversations, but I'm also realistic. They're not all going to fix all the problems. When I do a poor job of getting all the meaning on the table, when difficulties arise, conflicts are still unresolved, conditions still haven't improved, or one of us does something else to hurt the other, all is not lost. We begin a new conversation.

What we don't want to do is avoid these conversations. They are the real work of life. Shying away may save us some difficulty now, but we'll also miss out on the benefits later: improvement and the kind of relationships humans are built for.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Mushrooms, microscopes, and building a structure that works for kids

One of our guiding principles at The Depot is "learning through interests," and one of our seniors exemplifies this. Last year, his internship mentor helped him learn to grow edible mushrooms. This year, this senior decided he'd like to teach other students to do the same.

He isn't getting any special credit for it. He won't receive a grade. He's just doing it.

With his fish tank full of fungi on the table, his Google Slides presentation, and some cool time lapse videos from YouTube, he had the whole crowd engaged as he explained the need for the right growing environment. Even some who rarely speak out were asking questions, and when he passed around the sign up sheet for the workshops he's going to offer, twelve students signed up. At least one was clearly excited about it. Who knows what the long term impact of this senior's leadership will be?

We see lots of instances of interest-driven learning, like the student who spontaneously set up one of the microscopes on Thursday and just started putting tiny pieces of whatever he could find under it--spit, blood, fingernail, chips, cheek cells.

The new "kitchen crew" we started this year has been a huge source of learning for these kids as they cook breakfast every Friday for the whole school, and many of our students are thriving in awesome internships, from law firms and vet clinics to computer and automobile repair shops.

But not all of our students are ready for self-directed learning. Even with freedom and ample opportunity to discover and pursue interests, many students have trouble with motivation and struggle to progress.

So we're extending our new tiered support system to include a "Tier 2 internship," which is a combination of Depot-based projects (cooking, designing bulletin boards, cleaning, etc.), volunteering, and explicit instruction in career skills and life skills from the Competency Rubric. Let's establish some small wins, build some confidence through basic competence.

I'm convinced that if we build the right structure--the right environment, these students will naturally thrive. To me, this is a big part of leadership--finding those rules, that structure that will allow that natural growth.

Like mushrooms (and every other living thing), humans are built to thrive within a certain type of structure. My goal is to find that structure--to find a better fit for human nature when it comes to school. And that's why I love being at the Depot--because I think we're on the right track.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A rubric for the new year

At school, we set clear goals with students, establish clear criteria for success, and track progress with rubrics. Why don't I use this approach at home?

It's kind of funny to think about. Imagine pulling out a rubric during dinner time to score your younger children on their table manners, or pulling out a "relationship rubric" to talk to your teens about their relationships with their significant others (or to your wife about your own relationship).

But this is exactly the sort of thing we're trying to do at The Depot--using rubrics and setting goals for improving our students' noncognitive skills. We're trying to be intentional and objective about helping our students grow in important ways. Why should home be any different?

Some people really don't like rubrics at all. Maybe they feel like they are artificial. Maybe they feel like that's not how humans operate.

And maybe I don't talk about specific goals and criteria for success with my own kids when I discuss life skills with them, but maybe I should. Having clear expectations, rules, criteria for success, and feedback is essential to improvement, whether you're improving your basketball skills, your fitness, or your relationship skills.

Of course we don't want to make this all about scores or constant judgement, but using data doesn't have to be the way. It can be a powerful tool for avoiding natural cognitive biases that cloud our view of how we're actually doing. It's about being willing to look at things as they really are, and improving.

To various degrees I try to track my own stuff, like cholesterol, fitness, meditation, and reading. I recently discovered I had high cholesterol, so I started a series of experiments to see what might bring it down. I started with a baseline data point (here's our current paleo-primal winter meal plan), then I cut back on a bit saturated fats for a month. This meant skipping my coconut milk breakfast smoothies and cooking in vegetable oil instead of bacon grease. Then I got another blood test. Then I started up my old supplement regime again for a month, and retested. The results are in the figure on the right.

This month I'm drinking red wine every day. Since I saw a drop with the saturated fat reduction (the middle point on the graph), I'll kick it up a notch next month and try the Mediterranean diet (here's the tentative meal plan).

What if we had similar measurements for relationship variables and subjective well-being (actually, there are a bunch of ways we could measure these) and then came up with specific strategies to improve them?

Maybe it would look something like this: Hey, honey, how about we take this relationship test and then try something new, like going out every week, and take the test again later to see if things improve?

Or how about this: By the way, son, I've noticed you've been working towards some serious fitness and professional goals. Have you thought about setting any personal or relationship goals? Are you interested in some ideas about how you could track them?

I know there must be a balance between contentment and striving. There's a time to be content with who you are and where you are, and just be. But as long as we're talking about improvement, I know I need to be more intentional about it, whether at work or home. If there's something wrong with this approach at home, then why am I doing it at school, and if it works at school, then why am I not I doing it at home?

I don't plan on developing any relationship rubrics for myself or my kids right away, but I do plan on working towards more intentionality in helping everyone around me, including myself, improve. And maybe a little rubric for that wouldn't hurt.

Instead of a resolution, here's a rubric for the new year:

Just getting started
Meets expectations
Exceeds expectations
Bill offers to help his kids and wife establish new personal goals and tracking systems. He begins to work on a new tracking system for one of his own personal goals.
Bill offers to help his kids and wife establish new personal goals and tracking systems, and follows up with them during the year. He also establishes a new tracking system for one of his own personal goals.
Bill helps one of his kids and/or his wife establish new personal goals and tracking system, and follows through with them all year. He also establishes a new tracking system for one of his own personal goals.
Bill helps his kids and wife establish new personal goals and tracking systems, and follows through with them all year. He also establishes two new tracking systems for his own personal and relationship goals.