Tuesday, February 16, 2016

I Think He Can


Deficit Thinking: It Is A Reality In Education...

The more and more I interact with educators from around the country, the more I come to understand how pervasive the deficit mindset is in the world of education. I have been an educator for almost 20 years and I cannot tell you how many times I have heard statements that start with... "These kids can't learn this because..." or "Those teachers can't implement that instructional model because..." or "This community of families can't do that because..." and they each end with something negative that is generally connected to physical context (and the perceptions about it), socioeconomic status or some other perceived disadvantage impacting students, teachers or the community at large. 

What Is The Deficit Model?

The deficit model is not a new concept in education and although it is traditionally associated with the labeling of special education students or students living in impoverished communities, the negative mindset (otherwise known as a fixed mindset) doesn't end with children because it also impacts the way teachers are viewed, schools are viewed and practices within a school community are implemented. For example, I have consistently heard about schools that are hesitant to consider a BYOD model to technology because of something that might happen or an isolated incident that has occurred that only involved a small number of children yet impacted the whole community. Or the school that doesn't want to use the reading or writing workshop model within their literacy block because their teachers aren't "ready" for it and instead receive a scripted program that delineates what should be happening every minute of the day. Or the classroom where children aren't encouraged to access challenging materials or concepts because they can't "handle" it. This is all deficit model thinking... considering the problems, pitfalls and cants before looking at the possibilities, opportunities and cans!

My Personal Struggle With Deficit Thinking... 

This was something I struggled with as a parent when I was considering coming out to my son. In the months leading up to that day, I heard the opinions of many people who felt my son couldn't handle the gay thing; my son couldn't understand the gay thing; or my son wasn't ready for the gay thing. In spite of those naysayers, I felt like my son was ready so on that day, I woke up with the opposite of a deficit mindset... I woke up with one idea... I think he can handle it. It was the day that changed both of our lives and one that still impacts us today. 

It had started just like any other Thursday during the summer. Went into work, did some stuff in the office, spent time with our main office team, walked around the building with our custodial crew and actually sat down and had an early lunch. With that being said, this Thursday was different. It was the most important Thursday of my life. In fact, it might have been the most important day of my life, period. You see, that Thursday was the day that I came out to my son. Over some fried onion rings and a warm loaf of bread, I explained to my son that I am gay. 

Coming Out... 

I have shared a lot of things with my son over the last ten years but this one was unlike any other. This one would explain why our family would be different moving forward. This one would explain why I had struggled so much emotionally over the last couple of years. This would explain why my future partner in life would be a man and not a woman. Although leading up to that day I had come out to many people in my world, I had yet to tell my son. Paul, who I had shared so much with over the years. Paul, who had taught me about unconditional love; Paul, who had shaped me as an educator and human being; Paul, who was the most important person in my life. I hadn't told Paul... yet. 

As we sat there waiting for our fried onion rings, I couldn't keep it in any longer. The time had come for me to come out to my son. An excerpt of the whole exchange went something like this...

Me: "Paul, after all this time, I realized I am gay."

Paul: "Oh. So that means you are going to love a man?"

Me: "Yes, I am going to love a man."

Paul: "Oh, ok. Well, you're still my dad and I love you."

Needless to say, I bit my tongue hard to hold back the tears. I had never been so in awe of another human being as I was at that moment when I shared my news with Paul. You see, Paul responded with love, understanding and acceptance. My son was "ok" with my being gay. In fact, my son asked if he could come sit next to me and so he slid over to my side of the booth, hugged me and kissed me and said, "I love you so much daddy!" 

That final moment is what I will always remember about the day I came out to my son. He showed such maturity, composure, compassion and love. That moment was what helped me realize that he could handle it and even in that incredibly difficult moment, he was able to access the opposite of a deficit mindset... he was open, positive and willing to look at things differently. Granted, it has not been all sunshine and roses over the last couple of years because Paul and I are still figuring things out but, I am so relieved that I didn't succumb to the deficit mindset on that incredibly important day.


Why We Must Move Away From Deficit Thinking... 

I share this personal reflection because I think it is time we move away from deficit thinking in education. It is time that we give our children the space to learn, grow, fail, try again, and succeed on their terms (with our support and encouragement)... not based on our preconceived notions of the disadvantages that impact them. It is time to consider all the things are children CAN do... not all the things we think they CAN'T do. It is time that we empower our teachers to make the best decisions possible for their students as learners... not just asking them to follow scripted curriculum or zero tolerance policies. It is time that we engage our families in meaningful ways on our journeys to becoming true partnership schools... not just blaming families for all the problems that ail a community. 

The time has come to embrace an innovator's mindset... an opportunity mindset... a growth mindset... a positive mindset... or whatever you want to call the opposite of a deficit mindset because our children, educators, school communities and families deserve the opportunity to do what they CAN!  

How are you going to move away from deficit thinking in your school community? What will you do differently tomorrow? Will you consider BYOD? Will you move away from zero tolerance policies? Will you include teachers, students and families in conversations about the future of the school community? Please share your ideas below...     

Sunday, February 7, 2016

I Don't Miss The Classroom

That's right, I said it... I don't miss the classroom. Yes, I love being an educator and I love working with kids, their families and other educators but I don't miss the classroom. 

You see, I recently had the opportunity (a most amazing one) to teach kindergarten for the whole day. It was a Monday morning and we had only three substitutes in the building but five teachers were out. Yup - two uncovered classes. This is not necessarily unusual for a school on any given day - not enough subs - but there was a lot going on and I had to make a quick decision about who would be teaching kindergarten. I looked at my calendar and it was open for the most part and although I had a million "administrative" things to get done, I realized it would be the least disruptive thing to put myself in as the sub for the day. 

I didn't cover the class so I can walk around the building and tell everyone about it. I didn't cover the class so I can flood my social media feed with pics of myself "working" with kids (who cares about me?). I didn't cover the class so I could be seen as the "savior" who took one for the team. I didn't cover the class so I could be in the "trenches" for a day. I didn't even cover the class because I necessarily wanted to do it. 

I covered the class because I thought it was in the best interest of children (not necessarily the part about having me as their teacher but that is a whole other story). The kids would have one teacher for the whole day, which would allow for some consistency. I also covered the class so I didn't have to pull someone else from their program or class, which would have been disruptive to other kids. Bottom line... covering kindergarten for the day was about our kids and teachers, not me.  

So, I headed down to Room 6 and although I was initially somewhat nervous (I had never taught kindergarten before) I didn't have much time to think about it because the day had started and we needed to get moving - those little munchkins were ready to learn! Fortunately the classroom teacher had left the most detailed and awesome plans that were the key to us successfully navigating the day. We did everything from shared reading, to math, to several Groundhog Day themed projects to visiting the science lab and going to Art. That was all the stuff laid out for me in the amazing plans that literally accounted for every minute of the day. We also went off course a couple of times... we did a Google Hangout with the incredible Mr. Greg and his adorable kindergarten class in Tennessee (we counted to 100 to help them celebrate their 100th day of school). We also ended the day with some Twitter based "exit slips" where the children sat on the rug and partnered up to come up with one thing they did or learned during the day that we then tweeted out to the world. Before I knew it, it was time to go home. Overall, it was an awesome day filled with lots of learning, smiling and fun! 


After dismissing the class, I went down to the Main Office where a bunch of teachers were chatting, sharing stories about their days and laughing (the norm at the end of the day at Cantiague). Of course, everyone wanted to know how my day went as one of the kindergarten teachers... apparently the building had been buzzing about the fact that I taught kindergarten all day. 

Everyone wanted to know if I was exhausted (I was tired but being a principal is draining on every level too because I deal with hundreds of people on any given day). 

Everyone wanted to know how challenged I was by the day (there was a lot to get done and it was a busy day but as a principal, I am often running around like a chicken without a head because I am trying to meet the needs of dozens of people while putting out fires at the same time). 

Everyone wanted to know how I did with managing the little munchkins all day (they were full of energy but they were so good, they were so kind to each other and they were excited to learn, which is not something I always experience when dealing with people as the principal). 

Everyone wanted to know if spending the day in kindergarten made me realize how much I missed teaching. I laughed at some of the questions, answered them with a smile and then eventually retreated into my office because I was slightly embarrassed to share my one big takeaway from the day... that I don't miss the classroom. 

That's right, I don't miss the classroom. It has been almost 11 years since I had my own class when I last taught fifth grade. Yes, I loved teaching and learning and working with a small group of kids... a group of kids that eventually became my kids over the course of the year. But, about 11 years ago I decided I wanted to try administration and I took on my first building leadership position and basically, I have never looked back. 

Don't get me wrong, there are definitely moments when I would much rather be in my own classroom with my own kids but overall, I love being a school leader. I love the opportunities being a lead learner provides me. 

I love working with and interacting with our children, teachers and family members on any given day. 

I love being able to spend time with our children during class, lunch and recess because not only do they make me laugh and smile but they share really rich and important perspectives. 

I love amplifying student voice and then acting on what they share, which have accomplished by including students on our Shared Decision Making Team (made up of students, families, teachers and me).  

I love being able to chat with teachers during formal and informal meetings because these conversations impact the trajectory of our collective journey. 

I love interacting with parents and family members during PTA gatherings and functions because they provide me tremendous insight that helps us get better. 

I love participating in and facilitating professional development because keeping learning at the center of our community is a daily goal. 

I love being able to spend the majority of my day in all of our classrooms. 

I love being able to capture images and then using social media to amplify and accelerate our story by sharing all of the amazing things happening at Cantiague. 

Basically, I love being a principal. I love all of the opportunities and experiences it affords me. I love being able to connect with every classroom and every child and every teacher and every family member! I love the work I get to do with the entire school community and that is the main reason I don't miss the classroom. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

5 Steps To Rebranding HW

My Take On HW...

At this point I think most friends, colleagues and members of my PLN know how I feel about HW and in case someone missed it, I am not a fan. I have written extensively about HW on my blog (this post is the third post in a 3-part series - part one and part two were shared over the last couple of weeks). I have also shared dozens of comments on social media about my own HW experiences as a graduate student, about my son's HW as a middle schooler and other general opinions about this decades old practice that doesn't seem to have a positive impact on students and their learning... yet we keep assigning it. 

HW: It May Be Here To Stay... 

With that being said, it doesn't seem that HW is going away anytime time soon. In order to see HW eliminated there has to be a thoughtful process that is respectful of everyone's preconceived notions about HW. For most of society, HW is just the norm... the way it has always been done. Most of us had HW as students growing up and so we expect our children or students to have the same experience. In fact, some parents might argue that a lack of HW is indicative of a lack of learning. So, HW is probably not going away without a fight (in spite of all the research) so I think the time has come to REBRAND HW and make it something that children will be excited to engage in and parents will no longer dread. 


Rebranding HW in 5 Steps... 

Here are my 5 steps to rebranding HW:

1) Eliminate it! The over abundance of research that shows no positive correlation between HW and academic performance in school should be reason enough to eliminate HW; but if that does not seem like a good enough reason, then listen to the students because my guess is they would express a strong dislike for HW, which should speak to it being irrelevant and meaningless to the people it is supposed to be impacting the most!

2) Call it something else... anything else because the mere mention of HW generally garners a negative reaction from most learners. For example, in Kindergarten at Cantiague our children are expected to read at least 2 nights a week but, instead of calling it "Reading Homework," the teachers call it Book in A Bag and the kids get super excited when they realize it is a Book In A Bag night! Someone else shared that at their school students get math homework 2 - 3 nights a week but instead of calling it "Math Homework," the children become Number Explorers one night or Magical Mathematicians the other night. The assignment may not necessarily be any different but because the word homework is nowhere to be found, the children respond differently. So, get creative and start by eliminating the word homework and see how that impacts your students!

3) Give learners choices with what they can experience at home to extend their learning (see what I did there? Didn't use HW). For example, create a menu of activities that gives students a voice in how they want to deepen and broaden their understandings in a specific content area. For example, at Cantiague, our kindergarten students practice their words using a “word study menu.” The teachers have provided the children with different activities to choose from that tap in to different modalities and interests.  These are as simple as writing their words in the steam in the shower, tracing words on a family member’s back, cheering the words like a cheer leader or building the words out of legos or different materials. After speaking with the children about their choices as part of the word study menu, it is clear that they look forward to these activities and the teachers are seeing a new level excitement surrounding learning their sight words. Basically, what the children see as a fun project, game, or activity is helping to build their foundational skills. Although this example is specific to kindergarten at Cantiague, it is super easy to change it up for older students and across all content areas because the basic idea is giving children choices so they are empowered learners beyond the school day. For example, instead of having fifth graders read about the Civil War in a textbook and answer the questions at the end of the chapter, give them the pertinent information and then give them a choice about how they could communicate their knowledge... maybe they could create a video about what could have happened if the South won the war or they could start a blog and write a diary as a soldier from the north or create a historical fiction picture book based on the war... the possibilities are endless!  

4) Take experiences such as Genius Hour or MakerSpace and have the children engage in activities of that nature at home where they can try something new, create something from scratch or pursue a new passion! Whatever it looks like, it builds on step 3 where students have choices for what they learn outside of school but gives them more independence over the actual process and product. This is something we are going to start doing at Cantiague where we have dubbed Tuesday nights... Try It Tuesday! This idea was suggested by one of our amazing fourth grade teachers at Cantiague who was already trying it in her classroom. This is how she framed Try It Tuesday... Every Tuesday night instead of traditional homework, the children have to try something new. It’s kind of like Genius Hour at home with no limits! I have found that the kids are motivated and engaged to experiment, imagine, plan, create and improve their “designs,” whatever that may look like to them. I started this Try It Tuesday ritual and have found that it encourages appreciation and happiness in my classroom! Based on this suggestion about Try It Tuesday and the positive feedback it received from students and their families, we will be making this a school-wide experience starting in March. Every Tuesday night at Cantiague will be TRY IT TUESDAY and although the children will be able to do whatever they want, they will also have a menu of ideas to chose from in case they are stuck for inspiration at home. I am super excited about this shift in our HW practice!

5) Flip the classroom experience and try doing HW in school while letting the children do some of the learning at home. For example, instead of having children do a worksheet about fractions at home, have them watch a short video about fractions at home and then come to school the next day and engage in various fraction based activities. Although I never tried this as a teacher, I have observed several teachers who have used this approach and their feedback is that the students have a more positive attitude about the homework and the teachers feel like they have a better understanding of their students' readiness levels because they are seeing what the children can actually produce in class. This is one of the problems with HW - we never know how much support a learner might be getting at home and how much they actually understand. So get out there and try flipping your classroom!

These are just 5 steps to rebranding homework but I am sure there are dozens more so please share some in the comments below! Although I would love to eliminate homework completely, I don't think we are there yet so I am hopeful that rebranding the experience will make it a more positive one for students, their families and educators!