Sunday, August 27, 2017

Notes to self on the eve of the first day of school

Here are some notes I'm making to myself as the school year starts up again. Maybe you can relate.

1. It’s like jumping in a cold pool or starting a tough workout. You just do it, and then it gets better.

2. Remember that it’s the same for the students. We’re all jumping in together.

3. Remember that it’s about the students. This is for them.

4. Do the best you can. There will be obstacles you can’t overcome. Students will have difficulties that are beyond you. No one expects you to work miracles. No one, that is, except you.

5. It’s OK if you don’t feel passion all the time. Maybe what is called for is just dogged determination and focus.

6. It’s OK if you fail. As Conor McGregor said, “I never lose. I win, or I learn.”

7. There’s value in the work, even if you don’t get the results you want. Not only are you learning, you’re making money, you’re supporting your family, you’re expressing love and honor and doing what life is asking of you.

8. There will be successes. There always are. There will be smiles. There will be rewards. You will help people, even if they don’t realize it.

9. There will be breaks. There will be rest. It won’t be a non-stop grind.

10. Make sure that it’s not a non-stop grind. Plan in plenty of rest and fun. Burnout is a very real thing.

11. Don't be an island. Don't be a hero. Lean on your supports.

12. Allow whatever is to be enough. Not that there is no need for improvement, but there is no NEED for improvement. The universe will be just fine without it.

13. Enjoy yourself. Every day. Find the pleasure in every moment. It will be tough, but have fun with it.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Give it your best shot. Assess. Repeat (Project Block v. 2.0)

Tracking student progress in Project Block
"It stings. It stings bad, but this is the fight business. I've been on the end of many defeats in my life and I've rose back, so I will not shy away from it. I will not make excuses for it. I will assess it and come back."

-Conor McGregor

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of evaluating your success in terms of actual results.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for data and evaluation, but what do you do when the data don’t show the success you want?

Option 1: Despair. You suck. Your job sucks. Your life sucks. Lay on the couch and give up.

Option 2: Roll with it. Regroup. Rebound. Reassess your efforts, and adjust. Hey, this is a fight, right? You are in a battle against entropy and gravity and whatever other frictions and fictions are trying to drag you and your clientele down.

For me, I’ll take Option 2. I’ll let that despair roll over me like water off a duck's back. I’ll acknowledge the failure and pain, but then I'll get right back in there for another round. I never thought this would be easy. I always knew it would be a fight. From they day I struggled through the birth canal, I knew this world was a tough place. So let’s go, shall we?

Case in point: Project Block. Our whole school program was founded on the idea that autonomy and independence are keys to motivation and learning. My first year here, students were given several hours per week to work on whatever they wanted to, but the lack of productivity and success I saw changed my mind on motivation and led me to create a more structured approach called Project Block.

In Project Block, students worked through a series of structured science projects of increasing complexity, each of which focused on different aspects of the project process, and then graduated to fully independent projects about midway through the year.

That was the idea, anyway. 

Well, the results are in. While almost all students (88%) finished the 8 structured projects and earned 0.5 science credits, fewer succeeded in completing their first fully independent project (71%), and even fewer succeeded in completing additional independent projects and/or meeting their own deadlines for key milestones after the first 9 projects. Of 19 additional independent projects begun:

8 completed the research step on time (42%),
6 completed their Trello/Bullet Journal planning assignment on time (32%),
2 completed their projects (11%), and
1 completed it on time (5%).

Not exactly the results we had hoped for. My current hypothesis is that these students, many of whom struggle with ADD and related issues, are simply not ready for independent work like this. 

We could give up. Roll over. Play dead.

But it's worth another shot.

We had a whole-school deliberative discussion at the end of last year to talk about how we could regroup and improve Project Block. The students came up with the following idea: Split the school up into groups by credit needs (science, social studies, English) and maintain structured projects throughout the whole year (unless students demonstrate the ability to work independently). 

We will also build in lots of explicit instruction in project planning and execution, and the whole thing will be guided by daily checklists.

Maybe we'll never have a successful independent project program, but we'll learn in the process, and as Marcus Aurelius wrote: 
"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."

The obstacle becomes the way we hadn't looked for--the way to new strengths and new paths.

Give it your best shot. Assess. Repeat. Advance.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

It's good to be wrong

Depot students having a blast during fitness block.
"I feel like you treat us like delinquents. I feel like we're always being watched with suspicion."

We were sitting around the table, having a little conference. I had been sensing some negative vibes lately between the students and me, and so I called some of them together. The student who just spoke had been quiet, but he drummed up his courage and got right to the heart of the matter.

I was glad he did, because it's good to be wrong. That is, it's good to know you're wrong, because then you can change.

There had been several recent disciplinary incidents, and I had responded by taking away some privileges. On top of that, this year we've vastly increased accountability at the Depot. We added the CHIPS incentive system, ALEKS math block, competency ratings and progress tracking, and careful credit accounting. All this came together to generate lots of stress and negativity. The kids in the meeting had also complained about the Chips and how some students may not be able to go on the outing to Lake Compounce.

As I listened to what they had to say that day, I knew they were right. I knew the importance of focusing on support--that accountability is a poor driver of improvement, but I had lost focus. We had increased support along with the increased standards, but it wasn't enough, and according to our recent school climate survey, compared to last year at this time, more students felt like we don't care.

Time for a course correction. As Brian Tracy says, an airliner is almost never heading straight for it's destination. It's constantly correcting its course. It's constantly wrong, but the pilots know it, and they constantly adjust.

So I reinstated the privileges I had taken away. I reduced the Chips requirement for the latest reward outing, and finally, I made it easier to get math credit through the ALEKS system.

This last adjustment was the result of me looking more closely, after that little conference, at the sources of stress on the kids. I suspected that a few of the behavioral incidents and the slow accumulation of reward Chips were actually due to kids struggling with their math. They were nearing the end of their courses, and only the most difficult topics were left.

It may be coincidence, but since I adjusted the ALEKS requirements, there has been a notable change in behavior and attitude among a few of the students I had been concerned about, and spirits, in general, have been higher since the changes.

Lesson learned.

Being wrong is good stuff.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Education on the cheap

What I like about Betsy DeVos' recent comments about a former East Hartford High student is that they point out the importance of high expectations. What I don't like is that they offer the same tired old fallacy we've been buying for decades: that we can have quality education on the cheap.

You can't characterize East Hartford High on the basis of one student's story, but the sort of thing Besty is talking about does happen in many schools, and she's right, high expectations are one of the keys to student success. But you can't raise the bar without increasing the support, and that costs money.

Several years ago, during my libertarian phase, I would have been a big fan of Trump's proposal to cut public school budgets and increase school choice. But my experience experimenting with different school models changed my mind. It's not the model that's the problem. It's a lack of support.

Most teachers and administrators in struggling schools are doing the best they can and working their butts off for these kids, but they are fighting a battle the rest of us can't even imagine. They are fighting the combined effects of generational poverty, systemic racism, and years of insufficient support in which kids fell further and further behind. Those kids needed longer school days and extended years. They needed one-on-one instruction. They needed reading support, psychological services and social services, but didn't get them, because they were too expensive.

School reformers and new charter and magnet schools are a dime a dozen, and every one of them offers their own flavor of instructional models, but most have one thing in common: they are cheap.

They are all out there hawking their their magic elixirs and cure-alls, and they're all "on sale."

It's hard for reality to compete with the illusion of education on the cheap.

But why does everyone think they can get something for nothing? Why should we be surprised that raising and educating something as marvellous and complex as a human being requires a tremendous investment?

It's worth the investment, even from a utilitarian standpoint. As Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children Zone once pointed out, for some of these kids, it's a choice between five thousand dollars extra per year while they are in school or sixty thousand per year while they are in prison.

Of course, money isn't magic. It has to be mixed with research-based practices. But the best practices in the world still need people to implement them. They still need time. And more people and more time mean more money.

I know the politicians aren't listening.

I know people vote with their pocketbooks.

But maybe one day that will change and we'll start taking the education of all kids seriously. If we do, I believe the return on our investment will be amazing.

"The only way out of poverty," said an inner city activist I met the other day, "is education."

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Bringing order to your chaotic life with Trello

Ever feel like your life is a hurricane of responsibilities? Of course you do. So do I. That's why I write so much about managing stress and priorities. That's why I've been using the Bullet Journal method for a few years now. But I've recently retired that stack of black journals on my shelf and discovered an even cooler tool for time and task management.

Last fall, Elizabeth Brott Beese, a Ph.D. student from Purdue who spent some time studying our program, saw my notebooks and knew what they were. I thought that was really cool, because I'd never met anyone who knew the system. I told her how much I loved it. Then she told me why she didn't use it. She'd discovered something better. It was called Trello.

It looked really cool. I tried it. I said goodbye to my black journals.

Why is Trello So Darn Cool?

What I like about Bullet Journal is the physical feeling of writing stuff down and drawing little boxes and arrows and checking things off my list with a G2 pen. It's an ingenious system designed by Ryder Carroll that enables you to move tasks from week to week and manage tasks by category or calendar.

But it has weaknesses. Though you create your own index, it's still hard to find stuff when you try to go back in previous journals for important info, and everything becomes disjointed. Pages of unrelated stuff separate related tasks and topics from each other.

Trello is better. It helps you visualize your tasks by category, and it's super easy to move stuff around, reschedule, and find stuff you need, when you need it.

My Trello System

There are lots of ways to use Trello, which is of one of the cool things about it. I made this video about Trello for my students that explains the basics--the four essential pieces of the Trello system: boards, lists, cards, checklists and calendars. Start there for the basics, but here's how I use it for my stuff:

I like to make the boards very broad. For example, I have one board for my whole, entire job at the Depot Campus. On my Depot Master board, I divided all of my responsibilities into categories. This was a cool exercise, because it forced me to really think about what were the most important aspects of my job. It helped me bring order to a job that involves a sometimes bewildering array of very different responsibilities.

In each of those categories, I create cards for particular projects and tasks, and then within each card, I create checklists. I set due dates for each card based on the next checklist item that is due in each card. When I complete a checklist item, I change the due date.

Once in a while, I'll go through each list just to remind myself of what I need to do, what's coming up, and do a priority check. It's a great way to reorient myself when I'm overwhelmed or refocus when I feel like I'm running around like a chicken with it's head cut off.

When I have new ideas, I jot them down as cards and tag them with follow up dates.

I periodically go through the whole board and archive old stuff, finished stuff, and stuff I no longer care about.

Trello is also really cool for delegating. I can easily move cards to my program assistant's board, for example.

I have a dual-screen set up on my computer, and I always keep Trello open on the right hand screen. This gives me a continuous birds-eye view of my job.

It's not perfect, but neither am I. You see all those little red rectangles on the screen shot above? Those are missed deadlines, or just cards I haven't updated.

But it still helps... a lot.

It's like a map of my working life.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Five things I'm learning these days

Five things I'm learning lately:

Fitness - I just passed my first year anniversary with CrossFit in February. I started at a new gym (CrossFit Aisling) last October, and soon I was going five days a week. It's hard for me to stay balanced with anything. I start getting  goals in my head, and I have a hard time not continually increasing them. Then in February, I realized it was starting to stress me out. I got a nasty cold, felt run down, pulled a muscle, and also felt like I should be putting in more late days at work, so I cut back to three or four days per week. I remembered why I started CrossFit in the first place. It serves me, not the other way around. I'm looking for just the right balance: enough working out to stave off the stress but not so much that it causes stress.

Boredom - I've been working on our progress tracking system since last year. It's all on Google Drive right now. Teachers put competency ratings in a single spreadsheet. The ratings get automatically pulled into a series of spreadsheets, where the numbers get crunched, then that data gets pulled into live progress reports that parents and students can see. Now I'm working on transcripts that will pull in that data along with data from the credit worksheets. I'm doing all of this with a combination of Google Apps Scripts and formulas in Google sheets. I really enjoy the problem solving that this involves, but I find I get bored as soon as I figure out the solution and all that's left is ironing out the final product. So I always need a new challenge to keep me interested, I guess. It's the same in every area of my life, I think.

Authority - When I started at the Depot, I had grand ideas about collaborative leadership and egalitarianism. I thought that what schools (and society in general) needed was less hierarchy, even between students and teachers, but what I've found is that students need structure--clear rules that are consistently enforced, and this matches the research. There's nothing wrong with authority. As Jonathan Haidt says, an instinct for hierarchy is probably built right into our genes, and authority is legitimate if the authority provides a legitimate service and the leader takes on legitimate responsibilities (provides support) for the good of the whole. I think it's safe to say that I do that for my students.

Aging - I turn 46 this summer. I'm slowly coming to terms with what it means to get older and all the changes that come with it: my body changing, my relationships changing, my roles changing. I'm learning to accept these changes. But one of the biggest challenges is that there always seems to be this tension: part of me wants to kick back, relax, and just enjoy the last half of life, look forward to retirement, etc., and the other still wants to improve, achieve more, and grow. I think I understand those who choose the first option, but I can't choose it. I just can't. I'll push until I can't push anymore. Then I'll rest.

Mindfulness - I've been practicing mindfulness for about three years now. I do some extended meditation on the weekends, a little bit every morning, and try to be more mindful during the day. I started it as a stress management technique, and I think it helps with that, but I feel like that effect really only works during the meditation itself. I think the biggest impact for me has been greater awareness of what's going on in my head as I go through the day. I notice the way my thoughts are heading and am more likely to question my own thoughts now, rather than assume they are true and let them run away with me. I am also learning to enjoy the moment--to notice little things, like cherry blossoms on the ground, a breeze on my face, or my cool new socks, and for a moment, I can escape from my cares into a little vacation from worry. Actually, that's what a CrossFit workout is, too--a little vacation form worry, but it actually lasts longer. The euphoric feeling after a workout lasts probably an hour or so.

There are more than five things I'm learning, but some I'm really just getting started on and others I'm not learning so well. Actually, that's true for all of the above. All of this is imperfect, right? And that's OK. We're learning.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Change is tough: The slogging phase

"I'm done with my chores now. It's time. I say my prayer and head out on the hunt. The sun isn't up yet; it's cold; the fields are sopping. Brambles scratch my ankles, branches snap back in my face. The hill is a sonofabitch but what can you do? Set one foot in front of another and keep climbing.
An hour passes. I'm warmer now, the pace has got my blood going. The years have taught me one skill: how to be miserable. I know how to shut up and keep humping. This is a great asset because it's human, the proper role for a mortal. It does not offend the gods, but elicits their intercession. 
My bitching self is receding now. The instincts are taking over. Another hour passes. I turn the corner of a thicket and there he is: the nice fat hare I knew would show up if I just kept plugging."

-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Not sure exactly where I am in the hype cycle right now, but it's somewhere after the "Peak of Inflated Expectations." I'm in that phase when blogging about all the cool things that are happening, like our awesome Gallery Night and progress on our progress tracking system would seem empty. It would violate Ryan Holiday's rule of not talking about projects until they are almost entirely done. He says it's too easy to trade doing for talking about doing--to blog, post, tweet and brag about all the cool things we are up to and in the end produce nothing. Talk, Holiday says, is the enemy of work, and I'm in the work phase.

It's that phase when the brambles grab at your legs, your boots are wet and your legs are jelly. It's that phase when you wonder if it's all for nothing, and are tempted to let everything just slide back to where it was.

But it's also that phase when you can't stop--when you know you have to keep going, because you know in your heart and mind you are on the right track.

Last year was my first year in administration--my first year at the Depot, and I started with Barry Jentz and Jerome Murphy's Entry Plan approach. I rode over the top of the hype cycle right about then, disillusioned with the autonomy-based approach to education, and landed in the "Trough of Disillusionment." We did a program evaluation and immediately started up the slope with a set of changes we thought were needed.

It's tough not knowing where you are on that slope. I hope we're headed into the "Plateau of Productivity." There's a bunch of stuff in place, and data is coming in, but it's too early to tell for sure. So right now, we keep plugging, waiting for that rabbit to show up.

And I think it's right around the corner.