Preparing Kids for a Future We Cannot Imagine.

I had the opportunity to attend my sister-in-law’s graduation from the University of Indiana School of Medicine this weekend where she earned a MS in Genetic Counseling.  I have always loved commencement, I don’t know if it’s the robes, Pomp and Circumstance, or the energy of change and opportunity for the graduates, whatever it is…I love graduation.

The commencement speaker was Dr. Don Brown, an 1985 graduate of the school of medicine. At 61, he already is an MD and holds an MS in computer science but as an avid learner, is wrapping up his Masters in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins which he should receive this summer. This is one example of lifelong learning. How might we kindle the relentless inquisitiveness of our students so that they fall in love with learning and never want to stop?

One of Dr. Brown’s points in his commencement address was about disruption in trends and our inability as humans to predict exponential change. It really got me thinking about change, why it’s uncomfortable yet unavoidable and what happens when we refuse to innovate or adapt. Here are a few examples:
-AT&T didn’t believe that cell phones would be a worthwhile investment in the year 2000, so they were late to the game and missed the chance to make a significant mark. The market doubled from 2000 to 2004, doubled again from 2004 to 2006, and again from 2006 to 2008.

-Mercedes and BMW aren’t afraid of General Motors. However, they are afraid of Apple, Google, and Tesla.

-Think about your senior year of high school.  Where did you go to find information? Even if your senior year of high school was fairly recent, the avenues through which we access information have increased exponentially.

So we can’t predict the future, right? Here’s what we can predict…what we know now and use most often likely won’t be the same in five years. How are we preparing learners for a future that we cannot imagine and jobs that don’t yet exist. Even my sister-in-law’s field of genetic counseling cannot graduate enough practitioners to keep up with demand and it’s a relatively new field. She was a bio-chem double major in undergrad at Drake and didn’t want to be a doctor or pharmacist. What might our kids want to be that we cannot even imagine? Who are we to limit those aspirations because we’re not sure how to craft a pathway for them to learn at their pace and within their passion? Kids will do tremendous things when we adults get out of the way and learn alongside them.

As the newly graduated MD’s recited the Hippocratic Oath, I thought, “Why aren’t teachers doing this before entering the classroom?” Where is the educator’s Hippocratic Oath? What covenant might educators swear to uphold and defend?

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The Shift: “We do PLC” to “We are a PLC”

What’s the significance of 1.57? If you have been exposed to John Hattie’s research, you likely have at least a rough understanding of the effect sizes established by his meta-analysis surrounding student achievement. It may come as a surprise that the two most significant factors impacting student achievement cost absolutely nothing to implement. The word “free” in education usually comes as a shock but they truly are free. So what has the most significant influence?

1. Teacher estimates of achievement (1.62) How well do you: a)know your kids; b) understand their prior learning, and c) how well are you able to estimate their level of performance?  Do you have high expectations for all kids and share these expectations with them?

2. Collective teacher efficacy (1.57) Teachers work together to understand: a) their impact  on students; b) they have a greater impact than external factors; and c) we’re stronger together than in isolation. Effective PLC’s build efficacy as they share successes and work together to overcome challenges. It is a “we” mindset rather than “me.”

In implementing a PLC mindset and weaving the PLC tenets through your work, it is incumbent that educational leaders build collective efficacy for teachers through planned, dedicated collaboration and engagement with each other in a collegial and focused setting. Richard DuFour set out some basic principles for PLC’s in “What is a Professional Learning Community.”  Among the four principles established by DuFour, a collaborative culture is a requirement to create and sustain an effective PLC. Simply providing time doesn’t guarantee collaboration, it is a necessary structural start but what is done in the time allowed is what matters. A truly collaborative culture digs deep, has challenging conversations, and is tough on the content they’re engaging with while remaining professional and collegial. This is a culture issue. A broken culture will not be a PLC.

How we talk about PLC matters.  Doing PLC vs being PLC may not sound different but the underlying tone is passive vs. active. Doing is one thing, living is another. In my time at Jackson Elementary, we are working to be a stronger, more effective PLC.  We have some work to do and some room to grow. We’re working to build Collective Efficacy every day. We’ve come a long way in eight months. I can’t wait to see where we are by this time next year.

The 5 “F’s” of Leading Through Challenging Situations

Every leader will at some point confront a challenging situation.  It may involve an employee, financial matters, or the need to make critical changes to structures within the organization under the leader’s guidance.  Whole sections of bookstores are dedicated to leadership (sometimes labeled “Management” but that’s an entirely different post- leader vs. manager). So what does one do when faced with a challenging situation?

You may lean on your past experiences. You could use a quick web search for tips. You might call a trusted friend for advice.  All good options and ones I use.  However, I find it helpful to think through The 5 F’s when encountering a challenging situation.

Facts. In order to effectively guide an organization through a challenging situation, a leader must gather facts to understand the antecedent to the issues at hand. Problems don’t just occur. The right conditions come together to create a challenging situation and gathering the facts helps the leader to address the challenge by facing it head on with the relevant information. You only know what you know. You might as well know all that you can.

Feelings. As leaders, we work with complex creatures- humans. Leaders have to remember that in high intensity situations surrounding challenges, the feelings of those involved are likely not what they would usually be. Whether addressing employee performance, sharing a change initiative, or helping coach a team toward their goal, feelings are involved.  Consider what you are feeling as a leader and how that impacts your message. Consider how the receivers of the information will feel and how they may respond. Being aware of feelings can help you craft a response or at least be prepared to work through the challenge.

Focus. What can you use to your advantage to work through this situation? Are there resources that can be utilized to work through the challenge?  Getting crystal clear on what the challenge is and how you are going to address it gives you an action plan that is focused on the facts and the feelings involved but still doesn’t excuse you as the leader from facing the challenge. Get focused so you can get going. “It always seems impossible until it’s done” -Nelson Mandela.

Frame. I find it helpful to script my opening dialogue in addressing a challenging situation. I want to make sure that I am clear when I share my message.  Clarity of message serves the earlier “F” of Feelings. Knowing that emotions may be running high, why would we simply start talking without a plan for the message we want to send? Even scripting your main points that you want to make will help craft a message that is clear, concise, and addresses the issue at hand. I focus on framing remarks because in challenging situations, face to face is best with a phone conversation as a possible second-place option.  Communication in high intensity situations shouldn’t be through email or text. The message is completely lost when left open to interpretation.

Follow Up. So you’ve faced the issue. Great! Now what? You need to follow up with those involved or revisit the contributing factors to the challenging situation. For leaders to be effective, they have to maintain awareness of all aspects within the system they lead. If you were managing a conflict between two employees, you wouldn’t simply sit them down, hash it out and never check in again.  If that was your method, you would miss contributing factors that may have resurfaced. Likewise, you wouldn’t want a surgeon who performed a procedure then never checked to make sure you were recuperating appropriately. If you want to avoid the same situation reappearing, you have to maintain awareness. Be intentional about following up.

Challenging situations may not be where you thrive. However, leaders have to know how to work through challenges in order to maximize the health of the organization and minimize unintended consequences that cost talent, money, and progress.

Good Enough Until It’s Not.

“Good is the enemy of great” -James C. Collins
As a teacher, I wrestled for several years with my response when a student would ask while turning in an assignment, “Is this good enough?” Good enough? For what? For who? Why would you turn in anything that wasn’t the best work you could do? Had I not been clear what my expectations were?
There is a notion out there that I can’t want for my students to be successful more than they do.  I challenge that belief. If I don’t want more for them, if I don’t keep my foot on the gas for our learning and continue to think about what my learners need, I cannot blame the learner for not wanting to aim any higher than “good enough.”
Clare and I set aside some time to travel to Galena in October each year. On our first trip, we had a wonderful meal at a local restaurant. We swore that we’d go back there every year because the food and environment was exquisite.  The next year, we went back and again, delicious. The following year, Clare had a tasty pasta dish but my meal left something to be desired. Year after year for three more years, we returned and the experience got less and less satisfying. So this past October, we decided to go somewhere new and had a wonderful experience with phenomenal food and atmosphere. We had gotten to the point in which a good enough meal simply wasn’t. It had lost its flavor, it had lost its appeal, and it was no longer satisfying.
What in our classrooms has lost its flavor? What in our school is no longer good enough? What might not satisfy you or your learners? It is not a sign of weakness to admit something doesn’t work or needs to change. We can’t keep spending currency (time) on something that isn’t filling (getting results). Be courageous, be collaborative, and be the change your learners need.

The Homework Debate

“Did you do your homework?”

“Yeah.”

This was a common conversation in my home growing up. It wasn’t usually a lie, either.  I had usually done my homework or at least had a plan for doing my homework later. Perhaps you can resonate with this experience.

I get asked every once in a while about the purpose of homework or the importance of homework as it relates to student achievement.  I have led conversations with teachers in previous schools I have worked in about whether or  not homework should be graded, which elicits a range of beliefs and emotions.

Here is what we know about homework as measured by John Hattie in his book “Visible Learning” in which he conducted a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses (large scale pulling of data from many studies to get a common theme) of what works in education to move the needle on student achievement. In Hattie’s work, the hinge point of what works is an effect size of .40 or above. Hattie states, “The effect size of 0.40 sets a level where the effects of innovation enhance student achievement in such a way that we can notice real-world differences” (17).

Homework gets an effect size of 0.29. Looking at this, homework by and large doesn’t impact student achievement, despite its prevalence in classrooms and schools across our country. Now, it’s effect is greater than 0.0, which means there is some usefulness at appropriate ages and in certain content areas. Hattie’s research points out, “The effects were highest in mathematics, and lowest in science and social studies. The effects were higher when the material was not complex or if it was novel. Homework involving higher level conceptual thinking, and project based was the least effective” (235). I will say that Hattie does note a difference in the contribution of homework at different school levels, with elementary having an effect size of 0.15 and high school at an effect size of 0.64 (235). The conclusion is drawn that this higher effect size is likely due to the study skills of high school students when compared to elementary students. However, there are more robust and innovative practices at hand that do more for student achievement than homework.

So what works better? I will be diving in to that later in the week.

Make Monday count.

 

Work Cited

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

This is Your Brain on Reading

Today was the culmination of America Reads week at Jackson Elementary.  We had several community readers stop in to read to classrooms.  What a joy it is to have such wonderful community connections to our school. I believe our guests were impressed with how well behaved and inquisitive our students were.

Since we’re talking about reading, I wanted to share some insights that may be helpful. The Iowa Reading Research Center has a  vast array of resources available to families and educators including videos, articles, and games. You can visit the IRRC website here.

Here are some tips for reading with children from the Minnesota Humanities Center:

  1. Spend time with children talking, telling stories, and singing songs.
  2. Read with and to children every day.
  3. Let the child help choose the books you read together.
  4. Find a comfortable place to read and sit together.
  5. Change your voice and the pace you read to fit the story.
  6. After reading the book, talk about the story.
  7. Let your child see you reading books, magazines, or newspapers.
  8. Take children to the library regularly.

Instilling a love of reading begins at a young age, but it’s never too late to start.  Here are some additional tips for reading with pre-school age children from PBS.org (full link here):

  1. Point to words as you read them aloud.
  2. Repeat your child’s words the right way.
  3. Join your child in pretend play.
  4. Make up rhymes as you go about your day.
  5. Draw and write alongside your child.

Whatever you can do, bonding with your child over a book can not only bring you closer together but can help build a love of literature that will last a lifetime.

Read on, my friends!

Nick

You Don’t Wash a Rental Car…

Up until this past weekend, I had been driving a rental for about two weeks. My nearly paid-off SUV was rear-ended and wound up being totaled. Luckily, everyone involved walked away fine and after all, it was just a car.

However, the experience I had driving a rental car provided me a great connection to what I ask teachers and students to do every day. Let me elaborate…

When I first picked up the vehicle, I noticed that it had Ontario license plates. My initial thought was, “Interesting. People are going to assume I’m Canadian. This could be fun!” After getting in the vehicle and figuring out where all of the important parts were, windshield wipers, cruise control, radio functions, etc., I was ready to go.

About two miles in to my journey in this rental, I had a moment of great panic. I glanced at the speedometer and to my shock, I was driving down 42nd Street going 60! 60?! How is that possible?! Well, as it turns out, Canadians (and most of the world) use the metric system. This means speed is measured in kilometers per hour rather than miles per hour and gas is measured in liters rather than gallons. I had to adjust my way of thinking, the way I had always thought, in order to process this new content.

This is when learning can get fun! Looking at information through a different lens can reshape how we view things and bring us to appreciate a different frame of thinking. Just as I had to do a quick reevaluation of my speed and see it from a different frame of measurement, there are numerous topics on which to stretch our minds and hearts. Too often, we get caught in our comfort zones and do what we’ve always done because even if it isn’t perfect, at least it’s predictable. How can we shape experiences for our kids that help them to see from a different perspective or stretch them?

The Principal’s Impact on PLC’s

The following is an updated excerpt from my Master’s thesis originally written in 2010. We are working hard at Jackson Elementary to effectively collaborate as a staff in order to create the highest quality learning environment for all.

Student achievement remains a top priority for nearly all schools in the United States due to an increased focus on test scores, federal mandates for schools to meet proficiency requirements, and the desire for all students to be successful upon completion of schooling. As the focus on school improvement and reform continues to magnify, it is evident that in order to effectively manage the daily operations and the instructional environment of a school, the administrator needs to take specific actions to ensure that all intentions are met with results.  In order to create schools that are healthy and able to confront the issues that face education today, the checklist for administrators may seem a mile long.  However, one unchanging necessity is that school leaders need to partner with teachers and staff to create a productive learning culture for faculty and staff in order for teachers be effective in their roles.

The meta-analysis of Marzano, Waters, and McNulty (2005) identifies twenty-one leadership responsibilities that are significantly correlated with student achievement. I have worked to identify the associated key responsibilities that have the greatest effect size upon successfully implementing professional learning communities. With the ever changing climate of school reform and the parade of “fixes” that are proposed by leaders outside of education as well as within, it can become tiring to hear of another model for re-inventing schools.  However, the concept of a professional learning community (PLC), while perhaps conjuring up a variety of definitions, may actually offer new hope for the despondent school leader.  Creating and sustaining a professional learning community or PLC is not a quick fix and is most certainly not a band-aid approach to school reform.  The establishment of a professional learning community is a shift in the culture of the school and the actions and behaviors of the administrator are critical to the success or failure of the PLC.

Principals who once filled the role of manager must be willing to step forward and lead the school of the twenty-first century in creating learning organizations that promote staff effectiveness, collaboration among staff members, and the implementation of best-practices for all.  Through specific leadership behaviors, effective principals establish a culture in which the staff operates as a learning community and thus, becomes a powerhouse for effective teaching and learning.  Because the leadership behaviors of administrators are so critical in the success of teachers and students, the investigation of leadership behaviors influencing the effectiveness of Professional Learning Communities represents a topic worthy of investigation.

Over the past several decades, educators have faced a number of innovations, reforms, and theoretical “cures” to assist, improve, or radically alter America’s struggling public schools.  In light of the seemingly endless parade of reform programs that are ushered through the doors of schools, one fact remains constant: schools need effective, knowledgeable, and consistent leadership.  Additionally, schools need not always adopt the newest fad but rather, with able leadership, attempt a shift in culture.  Articulating the notion that administrators should concern themselves with creating an environment in which successful practices are implemented, Liebman (2005) offers some points to reflect upon:

The following questions are often asked: What assumptions guide our practices? How can we, as administrators and teachers, merge new learning with existing organizational knowledge? How can we modify existing norms and policies? How can we collectively learn to use innovations to enhance our teaching and learning (p. 7)

Developing and implementing a Professional Learning Community, or PLC, is not another reform but a shift in the school’s culture.  The need for attention to leadership tasks is explored in the work of Thompson, Gregg, and Niska (2004) who observed that, “Lambert, Walker, Zimmerman, Cooper, Lambert, Gardner & Szabo (2002) call for a redefining of leadership that is more important than ever in this age of accountability where collective action must be taken to change the learning experiences for both teachers and students” (p. 5).

Through specific behaviors and actions of the administrator, teachers and students benefit from the focus on creating a positive, student-centered culture in which teachers collaborate and take advantage of the opportunity to provide input for the well being of all in the school community.  Through examination of “The 21 Responsibilities of the School Leader” identified by Marzano, Waters, and McNulty (2005) this researcher identifies a strong overlap between at least five of the leadership responsibilities and the literature focusing on successful PLC’s.

 

Works Cited

Blankenship, S., & Ruona, W. (2007). Professional learning communities and communities of practice: A comparison of models, literature review. Online Submission, Retrieved from ERIC database.

Cranston, J. (2009). Holding the reins of the professional learning community: Eight themes from research on principals’ perceptions of professional learning Ccmmunities. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, (90), 1-22. Retrieved from ERIC database.

DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Elbousty, Y., & Bratt, K. (2010). Continuous inquiry meets continued critique: The professional learning community in practice and the resistance of (un)willing participants. Online Submission, Retrieved from ERIC database.

Fullan, M. (2006). Leading professional learning. (cover story). School Administrator, 63(10), 10-14. Retrieved from Professional Development Collection database.

Knutson, K., Miranda, A., & Washell, C. (2005). The connection between school culture and leadership social interest in learning organizations. Journal of Individual Psychology, 61(1), 25-36. Retrieved from Academic Search Elite database.

Liebman, H., Maldonado, N., Lacey, C., & Thompson, S. (2005). An investigation of leadership in a professional learning community: A case study of a large, suburban, public middle school. Online Submission, Retrieved from ERIC database.

Marzano, R., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. (2005). School leadership that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Mullen, C., & Hutinger, J. (2008). The principal’s role in fostering collaborative learning communities through caculty study group development. Theory Into Practice, 47(4), 276-285. doi:10.1080/00405840802329136.

Rooney, J. (2008). Taking hold of learning. Educational Leadership, 66(3), 82-83. Retrieved from Professional Development Collection database.

Servage, L. (2008). Critical and transformative practices in professional learning communities. Teacher Education Quarterly, 35(1), 63-77. Retrieved from ERIC database.

Thompson, S., Gregg, L., & Niska, J. (2004). Professional learning communities, leadership, and student learning. RMLE Online: Research in Middle Level Education, 28(1), 1-15. Retrieved from ERIC database.

Williams, R., Brien, K., Sprague, C., & Sullivan, G. (2008). Professional learning communities: Developing a school-level readiness instrument. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, (74), 1-17. Retrieved from ERIC database.

 

 

Off to a Great Start!

We are roughly one month in to the school year.  The best part of my day is interacting with the students and families of Jackson Elementary.  I enjoy seeing you at drop off and pick up (despite the traffic challenges) and I make an effort to get to every classroom throughout the week.

What I can tell you after one month of school is this- there is still excitement and a positive feeling throughout our school from both children and adults. When we spend our time focusing on what matters- building relationships, trust, and a stimulating learning environment, we will see our students flourish and thrive.  This vision must not be my own, but be contagious to our students and staff. Our teachers have engaged in learning that is focused on increasing student engagement and creating learner centered classrooms. I cannot tell you how exciting it is to see adults enthusiastic about teaching every day.

I will continue to update this site each week with my thoughts and ramblings. I hope you enjoy reading about and seeing all the great things we have going on at Jackson.

I am, as always, honored to be your principal!

-Nick

Something to Start With

I am simply thrilled to join the Cedar Rapids Community School District as Principal of Jackson Elementary!

As a school administrator and educator, my primary job is to build relationships. Everything we do in education rises and falls on relationships and the relational capacity of educators.  It is my privilege to work with dedicated and knowledgeable faculty and staff as well as with our inquisitive and caring students.

Jackson Elementary is spoken highly of by parents, students, staff, and community. There are some key elements that I have heard about and would attribute our success to: high standards and expectations; a family atmosphere; and a community of support. I am thankful for the opportunity to engage with our learning community and I look forward to leading exciting work with out students, teachers, and families.

I plan to keep this site updated regularly, especially as we move toward the beginning of the school year.  It’s a great day to be a Jackson Jet – let’s get learning!

-Mr. Duffy