Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Real Writers. Real Writing. Real Voices

Same 7th grade classroom.
Different group of students.  
It is a warm afternoon and the fans are on.  
I think back to my days as a 7th grader.  
My teacher's name was Mrs. Zurn.  
She passed away in the mid-90's and I remember her clearly for her loud voice; 
Her booming voice and I remember her because she used to make us write.
A lot.

And it was always about the things that she wanted us to write about, never about the things that I CARED about like music and motorcycles and the ATV's that I spent my weekends on, flying through the cornfields and woods that I lived next door to.  Or my parent's divorce and my dad moving to California and how much I missed him.  We couldn't write about that stuff. 

Instead we wrote about St. Thomas and our favorite lunch, and if we could be anything when we grew up what would it be, and Mother Theresa and what our favorite color was and why, and writing a letter to Pope John Paul II. 
I went to a Catholic school. 
You can probably tell.

Today, though.  I want to talk about today, and the opportunities these kids have to write.  And I know how hard writing is, and as much as I didn't like it when Mrs. Zurn made us write about the topics she chose for us to write about, the one thing it did do for us, was help us get into a habit of writing.  A lot.  

Which is what I hope kids find, that writing can be such a wonderful, beautiful way to express yourself if you just practice it. 
A lot.  
And it doesn't matter what it is.  
Just as long as it is something.   
And it doesn't matter who it is for.  
As long as it's for yourself first.  
YOUR voice is the only one that matters.  
You need to know that.  
You need to know how important it is for us to hear your voice.  
So speak up.  
Get blogging.  
It matters.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

7th Grade Blogging Awesomeness

So, I am doing one of my favorite things today, and that is getting into classrooms and being with kids and teachers.  But even better, today I am working with teachers and getting kids writing on their own Blog site! How cool is that!  Will is writing about his cat (just kidding, Will), Quinn is writing about how he hopes his Fantasy Football is better than mine (I have Matthew Stafford as my starting QB, Quinn...), and it goes on and on.  What I am REALLY super excited about, though, is the fact that I get to do this every day.  For a living.  Like, this is my life and I get to spend my days with awesome middle schoolers and middle school teachers.  We work hard, but we also play hard.  This is definitely where it's at.

My hope is that, through this blogging experience, they find voices as writers and realize they ALL have something important to say.  They don't have to be adults to have a voice.  Just one VOICE can make a difference, and I guess that is what we blog for also - to make a difference in someone's life.  To move someone with our words.  From the clicking of the keyboards around the room, my guess is that they are off to a good start.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Surprise Phone Calls and Personal Connections

I'm not certain that I've had it right all these years.  Focused so intensely on test scores and whether or not people were satisfied with how we were doing academically and a host of other things that really didn't matter. If all I focus on are relationships between kids, among adults, and really getting to know one another on a deeply personal level, will all of that other stuff take care of itself? Including test scores?  Perhaps part of the answer can be found in the story of a school day in August, on a day before teachers and kids were back in classes. 

I simply posted a picture of the two boxes of books
that I had ordered for my staff to start the year. I was excited, my administrative staff and I were pumped up, and so I tweeted about it and went down to the cafeteria to set up. It was a Friday, and our first day back with teachers was Monday.

A couple hours later, I go back to the office to check some email and grab a quick bite to eat. Unbelievably, there was a voicemail sitting in my email box waiting for me. Not that it's unbelievable I had received a voicemail; I mean, I'm a middle school principal. We get voicemails all day long.  But this was technically summer still.  And this one was from Adam Welcome, co-author of Kids Deserve It.  He had looked me up on Twitter, and decided to call the school to see if he could catch me. He wanted to thank me for purchasing the books, and just chat about being an educator. It was totally unnecessary, and at the same time I was so thrilled and excited that he took the time out of his day. I called him back, and we ended up chatting for half an hour.

And it didn't stop there.  I also received, out of the blue, a call one evening from a connection I had made this summer through Voxer, and then on Twitter (of course).  While watching the Olympics one night, my phone rings and Dene Gainey is on the other end, from Florida, just calling to check in and see how I'm doing.  Who does that?

The power of these phone calls really changed my thinking about this school year, and about school years past. There isn't anything I can do about those days, about those years, about those moments that I did or did not spend and connect with people. What it did for me was make me realize that I could do better by people. What it did for me was to motivate me, make me want to be the best school leader that I can be.

But how could a simple 30 minute phone conversation have such an impact on someone?

The answer is simple. The power of human relationships does wonders. Think about the relationships we have with our kids, the relationships that we have with other adults with whom we work. As educators we know it is essential for kids to feel wanted, to feel loved, to feel that they matter. They do better when they experience these feelings, when they know that we just can't wait to see them again tomorrow.  It is at this point that real magic happens - the power of school as it should be.  When we focus on relationships, on intentionally being with people, on making them feel like a million bucks when we are in their presence, the environment starts to change.  I mean, everything about the environment starts to change - including test scores - and it is really so simple.  It really starts with making people feel important, helping people to understand how much power they have to do good, to make change, to have an impact on someone else's life.

So my goal this year is simple.  My goal is to be present, to be intentional, and really show up to every single interaction with every single child and every single adult I encounter this year.  And not just that, not just chance encounters; my goal is to seek out opportunities to show up and make a difference in people's lives. What a difference we can make.  Who doesn't deserve that?

If you don't follow Adam or Dene, you really need to.  These amazing educators are doing real work to make a difference in the lives of kids and adults.  Go follow them on Twitter now.
                                   Adam Welcome               Dene Gainey

Saturday, August 6, 2016

On Procrastination, Libraries and Dissertations

At the library today, trying to finish the last section of the last chapter during year 8 of my doctoral program. It is the reason why I have not written a blog post since January of this new year.  And I realize, as I sit and watch people back and forth in front of the table where I sit and work, and I watch the homeless men sitting in the back of the library, passing their days in the cool air - reprieve from the heat outside - that this is why I have not found the time to finish this mammoth task.  Because, although it is a mammoth task - believe me, anyone who has taken on the behemoth that is doctoral work understands - it is not unattainable.  It is I who have done it to myself.  It is in the watching of other people that I realize my problem.  I am a procrastinator.  As the end of this dissertation writing nears, and I know my defense is coming soon, I find myself doing everything except the one thing I know I need to get done.

So it is time now.

Today is the day.

I have come to the library for a reason, and that reason is not to watch other people (although this is a mindless and enjoyable thing to do).

The day is mine.

I will blog again when the dissertation is complete, and then I will let you know of my experiences as a working middle school principal who is also a husband, daddy, foster parent, life-changer, reader, half-serious runner, wannabe innovator, and professional procrastinator.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

On Re-Takes and Second Chances

There has been a slow shift in thinking around the schoolhouse lately.  Emphasis on the word slow.  Or at least this is what I had thought.  At least in my own building, which is a 6-8 middle school building, where we are working on a number of things, including making sure that people understand the middle school philosophy and the central tenets that should be found in every middle school building; grading and reporting practices that are fair and meaningful to every student; and how we can incorporate student voice into the school day.

What I want to focus on here is the belief by many that learning will occur for all, and that we will do whatever it takes to ensure this supreme goal.

Except when time gets in the way and learning has to, for some reason, end.

This week, I sat in a room with some exceptional educators from around the district's 3 middle schools.  The topic was allowing students to re-take assignments and even assessments in order to ensure mastery. Some of the dissenting viewpoints focused on why it wasn't working, the opinion that students were not learning but instead, just trying to earn a better grade (emphasis on the letter grade and not the learning itself), and the worry that we really aren't teaching "quality life lessons" by offering second chances.

Okay, just to clarify a few things.  This is our first year dabbling with a mandatory re-take policy across all middle schools.  This is also our first year attempting to establish some consistent language and understandings across departments and grade levels.  These are good things.  Good things for both students and the teachers who instruct them.

But these aren't first year teachers.  These are educators who, for the most part, have many, many years of experience across the collective whole.

Why, then, are we wondering if offering 2nd chances is really teaching kids "quality life lessons?"  Why, when someone mentions that offering re-takes is really not encouraging mastery of learning, isn't someone speaking up and screaming, as loud as they can, "AND WHOSE FAULT IS THIS?"

Because I have a feeling I know the answer to this one.  I have a strong suspicion that the answer here, would be the ever-familiar, "Well, it's the student's fault, of course; it's the student's fault they didn't learn it the first time... they've learned how to work the system, and understand that this is a matter of not having to try hard the first time because I know I will get a second chance."

And so I reiterate what I said before, and I also wonder about it and am scared by it:  We believe that learning by all is the supreme goal, and that everyone is capable of learning.  Scan through school and district websites and I guarantee you will see a variation of this statement on just about every one.

But do we believe it? 

I mean, do you know of any educators who, when asked this to their face, would say no to this claim?  I don't either.  Until time gets in the way and the class period is disrupted by that horrendous bell, or the end of the unit is here and we have to give that dreaded summative assessment.  At this point, learning has to come to an end because, of course, if they didn't learn by now then we have to move on.  Every one of them, lock-step in line with one another, all learning at the same pace and all learning the same thing... and all knowing that the learning must come to an end because we, the adults, the professionals, the ones who know best, who have done the research (hopefully), and who have spent billions of collective dollars on advanced degrees, have created this environment where learning is the one variable and time is the one fixed thing, and we know it should be the other way around.