Recently, in response to a group of middle school students who asked about my journey to becoming a school leader, I recalled my 23-year journey to being awarded my Ph.D. in 2004 and my mother's sage advice.
I remember telling my mother that I just wanted to be done and did not want to participate in graduation ceremony. Her response was, "That would be fine if graduation was for you." She went on to explain that graduation was for all those people who had supported me to that point, and for all those who came before me and made it possible for a young African American woman to obtain the highest academic degree. My participation was a way to honor them.
My mother beamed with pride as I was hooded at the Purdue graduation, where she knew my participation in that ceremony was inspiring others.
At the reception after the graduation ceremony, a young African American woman who had just received her undergraduate degree approached me in her graduation robe and said, "Seeing you get hooded today for your doctoral degree helps me see that it is possible for me, too."
Since that day, I have been aware of the impact educators and leaders have on students and the community. Our actions can inspire or discourage. That is up to us.
The time is now for us to serve as inspiration through our own continuous learning and by our actions as leaders in our middle schools.
AMLE talks with author Nikki Woodson and Students about Student Leadership
Seeking the Student Voice
As a part of my educational journey, I learned about educational philosophy and theories. I practiced strategies, deployed initiatives, and taught curriculum. I followed mandates and met achievement goals for students. I adhered to assessments and testing requirements. I wrote and deployed school improvement plans and district strategic plans. I served on textbook adoption committees and department of education task forces. I have written individualized education plans and have participated in professional learning communities. I have seen technology become a tool for learning and a necessity for life.
A few years ago, however, I was forced to look at my leadership differently. I had mastered curriculum review, deployment of initiatives, and leadership oversight, and I knew how to "do school," but I had not heard the student voice about the teaching and learning process in a long time. I don't mean incorporating the student voice in the classroom during instruction—I mean truly trying to see teaching and learning through their eyes. I wondered what their student voice would say.
I realized that students did not serve on committees for curriculum planning and textbooks. They did not attend professional learning community meetings to share their voice. They did not serve on our initiative deployment committees. They were not in professional development with teachers to share their perspective.
The Time Is Now
It was at that moment that I decided the time was now that I hear the voice of students about the educational process. It is easy for educators to plan, deploy, implement, and assess without ever taking the time to hear students' voices about the teaching and learning process. The time is now to listen to what they have to say.
I remember standing before my high school senior class as a candidate for class president and demanding our student voices be heard by teachers and administrators. I realized that we had a right to be heard regarding our own education. I am proud to say I won that class election and continued advocating as a high school student for our voices to be heard around the school. As a student I felt valued when staff listened to our ideas or concerns.
Now, decades later as an experienced educator, I am circling back to my class president speech to ensure that student voice is heard in efforts to improve teaching and learning in our schools. Students certainly have a voice if we as educators take time to listen.
I realize that school systems are busy places. Schools are responsible for providing trained and certified teachers, ensuring an optimal learning environment, feeding students, transporting them, offering enrichment opportunities, and ultimately making sure students are learning.
To do this, school districts are busy supporting the various divisions and departments that make schools work. We attend meetings and professional development activities, talk to other educators or experts in the field to learn and implement strategies in our schools and districts with the goal of improving student achievement. We create sub-committees to narrow the focus and we have school improvement committee work ongoing.
Stop and Listen
We send staff to trainings and conferences to learn how to improve our schools. We configure school calendars, school schedules and various support systems by conversing with fellow educators. Typically, we don't hear the voice of students in our planning and implementation of programs.
I challenge you to think about the last time you listened to student voice when making decisions or generating ideas for your school or district. Ask your students directly. During informal times during their day such as at lunch, ask:
- When was the last time a staff member asked about your experience in our school?
- Do you feel like you have a voice in things that happen at school?
- If you had an idea about how to make our school better, what would you do with that idea?
- Do you think students could help staff improve our school with ideas and by giving feedback?
What ideas do you have for staff to hear more from students about what we could do to make school better?
I hope my own leadership journey reflections serve as an inspiration to you. Find ways to listen to student voice. Create authentic opportunities for students to have a voice in your school. Be courageous, lead with student voice. The time is now.
Nikki Woodson is superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a member of the AMLE Leadership Institute faculty, serves on the board of governors for International Baccalaureate, and is a co-founder of Change Makers International, which focuses on growth and global contribution.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2016.
Experts weigh in on keys to making effective decisions about technology.
No school districts want to be featured on the nightly news because of their poor choices in technology decisions or for implementing technology plans that end up wasting the taxpayers' dollars.
But technology decisions are tough, first, because there are so many options—simple upgrades, new purchases, different platforms, tablets, laptops, 1:1, BYOD—and second, because there are so many other considerations such as cost, curriculum needs, deployment, professional development, and public relations, which all seem to be the purview of individualized departments.
Middle school leaders have the additional challenge of determining what tools will be most appropriate for the unique needs of the young adolescents they teach.
Collaboration Is Key
AMLE talks with author Sandra Wozniak about Technology Decisions
Given the complicated nature of these choices, the best decision can only be made through collaboration of the people who can provide the key information and perspective of the different constituents. However, bringing together the interdependent parts from finance, IT, curriculum, instruction, coaching, the student body, and the community is no simple task.
How do districts make tech decisions that successfully encompass instruction, purchasing, deployment, professional development, and public relations? In a recent conversation with several district administrators, I realized that certain common denominators can help you manage the process of collaborative decision making and determine the best solution.
My colleagues and I asked the advice of three leaders who had recently worked through tough technology decisions in their districts:
David Blattner, chief technology officer and executive director for media and virtual learning at Iredell Statesville Schools in North Carolina
John Guyer, executive director at Summit Academy (former executive director of technology management) in Ohio
- George Rafferty, superintendent of schools in Tabernacle, New Jersey.
These school leaders shared their best practices and advice they have gleaned from their experience to help others avoid the common pitfalls of making tough technology decisions.
Step 1. Set the stage.
The first step is to determine what your infrastructure can support. All three district leaders agreed that it is best to start with a robust infrastructure, a wireless network with sufficient bandwidth, and upgrades. An outdated or insufficient network will be a limiting factor in what technology you choose and how you can use it. When inadequate infrastructure holds up deployment and implementation, you are wasting money, losing credibility, and feeding teacher and student frustration.
Step 2. Have a clear purpose.
Start with the end in mind. Sound familiar? As with all instruction, the single most important question is "What are our learning goals?" Have a vision of what you want to see happening in the classroom. As Rushton Hurley, nationally known instructional technology specialist, says, "We need to keep the conversation in learner's terms not vendor's terms." Technology choices should be driven by instruction.
Blattner's district demonstrated a commitment to this ideal and did not even talk about devices the first year. They wanted everyone involved to understand that their Race to the Top funds were provided for a "blended learning initiative, not a tech initiative."
Rafferty echoed this thinking, saying, "We do not just want to look at a bunch of cool devices, we have to ask ourselves, what is it in our schools and in our classroom that we want to teach?" Clearly the place to start is in the classroom to prepare students in the 21st century.
Let instructional goals drive the initiative. Before you start looking at technology choices, come to an understanding of what you want the outcomes to be in the classroom. Do you want to see more global activities? Individualized instruction? Cultivate high-quality teachers? Increase the use of data?
Make sure that what is agreed-upon is clearly communicated to all stakeholders. Parents and community members need to understand what is happening and why instruction will look different in the classroom.
Step 3. Gather key stakeholders.
It is crucial to determine who will be involved in the process and how they will be involved. Jean Tower, director of technology for Northborough and Southborough Public Schools in Massachusetts, is quoted as saying, "Twenty years ago a tech leader's job was 80% technical ... over the last 20 years it's slowly morphed into a real leadership role understanding the business of schools."
The "business of schools" is often carried on in distinct silos. Technology decisions should not be made by an IT person and the superintendent; the most successful decisions are made with a wide array of stakeholders in the room ranging from administration, curriculum specialists, IT professionals, teachers, and finance officers, to students, parents, and community members. Each contributes a separate piece of the puzzle to the process and ensures that all important issues are considered.
All three school leaders thought it was well worth the time to involve important stakeholders in their decision-making process. Iredell-Statesville schools involved more than 120 people and used surveys to collect additional data. Parents, teachers, students, support staff, community members, administrators, and technologists were all asked for their input.
Guyer pointed out that a representative from finance is key, as budget considerations will always be a factor in school decisions. It is also important to be upfront with all constituents from the beginning about this: those involved in the process are not necessarily those who will make the ultimate decision, but will be the ones who make recommendations and supply the data to support them.
Step 4. Establish criteria for the solution.
Only after those initial steps are completed—setting the stage, having a clear purpose, and involving stakeholders—should you turn to considering what your ideal technology solution should look like.
Establishing criteria is not the same as listing choices; rather, it is a list of characteristics or capabilities that you would like your solutions to provide. Establishing criteria independently of the choices helps you eliminate tool or platform bias that often exists with technology users.
Sample criteria from our education leaders consisted of things like:
Compatibility with current infrastructure.
Free tools available for collaboration, creativity, and communication.
Minimal time needed for support.
Differentiation possibilities for grade levels.
- Minimum deployment obstacles.
Each of the leaders we talked to used a clear-cut decision-making strategy called decision analysis to determine which decision was the "winner." Each option was weighed against each criterion to determine a score. From there, they weighed the risks of each high-scoring choice and ultimately made their recommendations to the board complete with a full chart of how the decision was made—why some choices were eliminated and others put forward.
Staying focused on your education goals ensures a smooth implementation and a fiscally and educationally sound outcome. David Blattner said, "Using a process did not make the decision easier, it made the decision clearer," ensuring solid decision making and smooth implementation of their Race to the Top-funded program.
The experts' final advice to leaders facing the similar big technology purchase decisions:
1. Plan for and provide appropriate support and training. Use surveys and other means to help individualize instruction for teachers as you would for your students. Provide instructional coaches or facilitators who can answer questions, go into classrooms, and provide just-in-time training for those who need it.
2. Engage your entire community, not just parents. Parents are not the only voters when it comes to school budgets. Increase your support and public understanding by including public input and using clear communication channels with all stakeholders.
3. Take the time to do it right. The bottom line for each administrator: it is worth putting the time in upfront to ensure that you are making the best decision possible to meet your instructional goals.
Using a decision-making strategy helped them manage the collaborative effort that was necessary to make and carry out the ultimate decisions. Having clear documentation of that process made it easy to justify their choices with the "right reasons" to everyone in their community.
Sandra Wozniak president of NJAMLE, is a curriculum director for TregoED, a nonprofit that works to help education leaders make and implement great decisions.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2016.
Have you ever fallen flat on your face?
In 2013, a video of a father and two daughters doing a trust fall went viral. In and of itself, a trust fall—when you close your eyes and fall backward, trusting the person/people behind you will catch you—isn't that novel. So why did the video go viral?
The video shows a father and his two daughters. The first daughter has her eyes closed as the father gives directions. He says, "This is called a trust fall. Just fall into your sister's arms and she will catch you." The daughter knows her father and sister love her. She trusts them. What could possibly go wrong?
As the second daughter positions herself behind her sister, an astute viewer might realize that the father left out a critical direction during his explanation.
As Dad begins to count down, the daughter standing behind readies herself, bracing in anticipation of her sister falling back into her arms. As soon as Dad says "Go," the consequences of his lack of clarity and specificity are evident. On "Go," the daughter falls forward instead of backward. Face plant.
Let's review: Dad did describe the trust fall to his daughters. However, we don't know what his daughters' previous level of knowledge was—and neither, apparently, did he.
Dad did instruct his daughter to fall, and he did indicate that her sister would catch her. But he didn't say which way to fall. He didn't specify forward, backward, or to either side. He assumed that she knew. With that assumption, he unintentionally created a viral video that became an Internet sensation.
One simple direction, one simple word could have made all the difference.
Have you assumed previous knowledge and thought your students or colleagues knew the direction when in actuality they had no idea?
As a building and district leader, I can give you many examples of poor communication. My lack of planning and lack of clarity have unfairly and unintentionally affected many staff members. They were flexible and understanding in covering for me, but if I had taken some additional time to plan and clarify, they wouldn't have been put in that position.
While I certainly am not perfect, I now spend much more time on the front end of planning. Not surprisingly, I have noticed a much greater understanding when I communicate. As I have grown as a planner and communicator, action plans, vision, and follow-through have improved as well.
When we are teaching, we need to make sure students understand what we expect them to accomplish with each assignment. To do that, we need to spend time clarifying our directions.
A standard direction on a test is to "use complete sentences." But have you explained to your students that you expect them to rephrase the question in their answer? Have you explained what level of detail you expect in their writing? Consider these types of questions with the goal of providing clarity for students.
Another common classroom direction is to "take out your notebooks and get ready to take notes." Do you take for granted that your students know how to take notes? Don't! Make sure they understand how you expect them to take notes. Give guided notes to help them with the process. Model your own note taking during a lesson.
Administrators must also provide clarity in the directions we give students and staff. For example, when creating schedules and giving directions for standardized testing, it's critical to ensure every single direction is crystal clear. The penalties for not following directions on standardized tests are severe, and I would never want someone I work with to be penalized because my directions weren't clear.
Similarly, it's important to spend time going over expectations for behavior with the students you serve. In many buildings, lunchtime can be chaotic. As a middle school principal, I made sure I spent several days with students explaining and practicing the routines students followed. Further, I outlined the expectations for the staff. Who is covering the lunch line? Where is the staff standing? How often should the staff move around?
Because of the time we spent in planning, behavioral problems were minimized, which allowed students some peaceful time with their friends. From a broader perspective, a peaceful cafeteria ultimately provided a better transition back to afternoon classes.
When we assess students, we need to have clarity regarding what we are assessing. Are the objectives clear? For example, have we worked to make sure our assessments align with the material we expect them to learn? Are students familiar with the types of assessment we are using? Do they understand expectations? It is imperative that students know how they will be assessed and what mastery looks like.
We also need to provide clear feedback based on the assessments. Research shows that clear feedback has a powerful effect on student learning. The feedback should be timely, focused, and aim to provide clarity. Feedback that consists of phrases like, "nice job," and "great," isn't meaningful. Nor is "the student provided good details." Your rubrics must be specific enough to provide clear and beneficial feedback.
Prior to giving students your rubric, ask yourself if it would be easy or difficult to defend a mark on the rubric. In the example above, "the student provided good details," what does good mean? The word can mean many different things and certainly is left up to interpretation. By simply providing specificity such as, "the student provided three details…" we lessen the confusion, bring clarity, and allow students a better chance to meet our expectations.
Trust Beyond Clarity
As educators, we strive for perfection, but mistakes happen. No matter how hard we try to be clear, our directions may be misinterpreted. Often we need to take a step back and review the situation—including our directions—to identify where we can improve in the future. Did the students misunderstand how to do an assignment or was there another reason for poor performance? By embracing the philosophy that we aren't perfect, we will maintain trust even when we weren't clear and caused confusion.
Not long ago I wanted to ask my daughter to pick up the remote control, but I was frazzled and couldn't think of the word "remote." The only word that entered my brain was "thing." That's right, I asked her to pick up, "you know, the thing over there." Talk about lack of clarity. She looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. If we don't take time to organize our thoughts, others suffer from our lack of clarity.
Ultimately, our goal is to take our time, strive for clarity, and try to avoid situations that might cause face plants.
Tom Burton is assistant superintendent for Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2016.
Turning up the heat to prepare students for the future.
At Berwick Alternative School, we began building STEAM last year—this year we're moving full STEAM ahead!
Berwick, a K–8 school in Columbus, Ohio, has enjoyed a strong legacy of success; however, our learning community came together to reinvent the future, and the result was a new vision, mission, motto, partnerships, paradigm, and energy. We discovered that to get STEAM, we had to start the fire, turn up the heat, and move the mission with the momentum!
Berwick did not happen upon a STEAM focus by chance. Our school had been re-launched by our district in 1982 as an alternative school with a math, science, and environmental studies focus. Recognizing the growing gap between job openings in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and qualified applicants to fill them, we considered preparing our students to fill those voids and to explore what our historical identity meant in this 21st-century new reality.
Starting the fire wasn't hard—the school staff was hungry. When I came on board as Berwick's principal, they told me they wanted us all to answer two fundamental questions: who are we and who do we want to be?
Using principles from Mark Sanborn's book The Fred Factor and from the work of John Kotter, I harnessed the staff's energy and enthusiasm and directed it to create a new shared vision. I went in believing strongly that everyone makes a difference and that success is built on relationships. I recognized the sense of urgency handed to me by my staff and realized that I already had a guiding coalition that could move the work forward. The next steps were to collaboratively develop a vision and strategy, communicate it, and empower the staff, parents, and students to act.
Adding the A
We didn't want to be just another STEM school. Our students were exuberant, creative, athletic, dynamic, artistic, musical, and so much more. We decided that we had to put the "A" in STEM to make STEAM. From there we developed a schoolwide theme that incorporated what we wanted and what we knew it would take to get us there: "We're Building STEAM: One Extra Degree Makes a Big Difference."
We used 212: The Extra Degree by Sam Parker and Mac Anderson to keep us motivated and ever mindful that going that one extra step would give us enough power to keep moving our vision forward. With that foundation, it was time to turn up the heat.
I presented a lesson design template akin to a web with STEAM at the center and felt a cool breeze of resistance blow through the room. Clearly we were not ready to have the "integrate-STEAM-into-your-lesson-plans" conversation yet. Lesson for me? Wrong approach. But that was OK! It was important that teachers not see this as something extra, an add-on to the teaching of required learning standards. I didn't want them to think I wanted an immediate overhaul of their current instructional practices.
We began having strategic thinking sessions with staff, students, and parents. In those sessions, we explored our core beliefs and turned those beliefs into draft vision and mission statements. Once our collaboratively developed vision, mission, and motto were crafted, we began seeking expert advice on the STEAM concept.
Building STEAM could and should take time. My guiding coalition and I needed to start by building interest and enthusiasm for this paradigm shift. We needed to show teachers how they were already "doing STEAM" in many ways.
We brought in our district and local university's science guru, Trudy Giasi, to coach us. She taught us that STEAM is not a packaged program, but a mindset that embraces authentic learning, the design process, and 21st-century skills called the 4Cs—Collaboration, Creativity, Communication, and Critical Thinking—in all that we do. She opened our eyes to the fact that technology is more than a computer, and an engineer is more than someone who wears a hard hat.
At the beginning of the school year, with Trudy and key teachers as co-leaders, our staff attended a day camp where they experienced a design challenge and began identifying the 4Cs in their current professional practice from kindergarten through eighth grade. The wheels began turning like crazy and, not surprisingly, some of the first ideas that came to them were programmatic in nature. It was time to move the mission with the momentum.
Moving the Mission
Moving the mission involved staff volunteering to run STEAM clubs and reaching out to local businesses and organizations for possible partnerships. In addition to overnight camping trips that our school had taken at various grade levels since 1982 and a robotics course taught in sixth grade, teachers stepped up to lead new clubs and initiatives.
In one year, we added a technology club, recycling club, eco-fashion club, photography club, and garden club. We started STEAM Mates, a cross-grade level collaboration where, for example, eighth grade teachers had their students partner with primary classrooms to do projects. One of our PE teachers volunteered to tutor in math during a free period, because he had a math degree.
The spirit of creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration had begun to rise in new ways at our school. We developed partnerships with The Columbus College of Art and Design, Franklin Park Conservatory, Black Data Processing Associates of Columbus, The Dick and Jane Project, local fashion designers Sarah K and Crys Darling, a former BBC editor, and others who got excited about what we were trying to build and wanted to join us.
We had hit 212 degrees and we were moving fast! By the end of the school year, our work culminated in a STEAM Night that included design projects, experiments, and experiences throughout the entire building and across all grade levels and content areas. We had an eco-fashion show. Students sashayed down the catwalk to the tunes of original songs written by their peers that The Dick and Jane Project made into an original CD. Those songs ultimately made it to local airwaves. Artwork adorned the ceilings, halls, and walls, and design challenges and experiment results were everywhere for our parents, students, and community to enjoy.
Getting What You Want
We were building STEAM, and it was a sight to behold. We started the fire, turned up the heat, and moved the mission with the momentum. Without purchasing a program or being awarded grant funds, the Berwick learning community created a STEAM focus using the talent, creativity, dedication, and leadership of staff, students, parents, and community partners. We learned that you can use what you have to get what you want.
Natalie Grayson is the principal at Berwick Alternative K–8 in Columbus, Ohio. Scott Thorne,
Keith Jorgensen, Jared Laughbaum, Trudy Giasi, and Ben Shinabery contributed to this article.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2016.
When my wife and I were thinking of names for our children, and yes, our dogs, they were difficult conversations. As you probably understand, some of the students I've taught through the years were particularly rough to teach. I don't want to be reminded of those stresses every time I see my child or dog. As a result, we will never name a child or pet of ours "Megan," and neither will we use "Rufus," "Rebecca," nor "Taylor." Apologies to readers with those names.
Every teacher with whom I speak has names that make them shiver just a bit, yet we all know it's completely irrational. Emotions win, though, and intellect has little to say. The only way to overcome the name bias is to have a positive experience with a student of the same name in later years, invoke a Philip K. Dick memory wipe, or forget to wear protective sunglasses as we watch the flash of bright light in Men in Black.
If we've grown up eating certain types of food, we feel lonely and out of sorts in countries where we can't find it. We think our particular church's interpretation of God and religion is the only correct one. Because we want to be soothed, we visit websites that reflect our own beliefs back to us rather than taking the time to explore opposing points of view.
Phonics is more important than a whole language approach, intelligent design is preferred over the theory of evolution, K–8 schools are better than 6–8 middle schools, or vice-versa on all three of these. We turn the familiar into inviolate truth, regardless of other perspectives and evidence that come knocking at our doors.
Honest scrutiny creates painful revelations, and the positives that come from making changes to long traditions are too far down the road. It's easier not to talk about them and just forgive ourselves.
If we've used Singapore Math, the McGraw-Hill, or Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt textbook for years, we find new textbook adoptions troubling. Some of us sabotage the adoption, consciously or unconsciously, using it only sparingly and providing photocopies from the old series as much as possible.
To accept a new idea or perspective, we have to first admit what we are thinking and doing is less effective than our ego thinks it is. Teachers' egos bruise easily because as we teach, we make ourselves vulnerable to colleagues, students, and their parents; it would be safer to keep quiet and do our tasks in separate silos.
Almost 20 years into the 21st century, we still see teachers as knowledge-bearers, certain of the facts, skills, and ideas they impart to the next generation. This conceit limits candor, however, so we don't critique honestly what we do and what knowledge is worthy of this year's students. Candor can be threatening—our carefully carved status quo is in danger.
A whole lot is at stake here, so it's worth taking steps to reveal assumptions that may or may not be true . It's worth looking at our inadvertent acts of racism, sexism, and ageism, as well as the altars of education "correctness" we've built unknowingly. Each year we teach, are we willing to unlearn something we've held educationally sacred?
Our education biases abound:
If we have one person of a particular race in our classroom, some of us ask him to express the views of that entire race regarding a controversial topic.
When we create the evaluative criteria for our rubrics, we automatically bias our students to our generation's interpretation of success.
- We often associate lack of English language proficiency with lack of intellect because speaking and writing are the usual methods we use to perceive students' intellect in our classes.
So how do we recognize and confront hidden biases that keep us from being effective? Books, articles, and videos offer great wisdom on how to confront bias and false assumptions, but some small things we can do right away will help:
Consider new perspectives. "Used to Think, But Now I Think" is a wonderful information-processing technique that we can use to open minds to revising thinking in light of new evidence or perspective:
I used to think Twitter was a big waste of time and not worth the effort, but now I think it may be among the best ongoing professional development resources I've ever experienced.
- I used to think allowing re-dos in my class didn't teach students responsibility and respect for deadlines, but now I think the re-do experience teaches students more about responsibility and deadlines than recording a zero does.
Get up to speed on logical fallacies. Each of these has serious issues in logic:
If you're for using Macs instead of PCs in the classroom, you're against good teaching.
I did my lessons on the Promethean board, and my students did much better on their tests on Friday as a result.
- Her ideas aren't going to work because she's only been teaching for two years.
When we learn logical fallacies, we begin to see them in political rhetoric, conversations with colleagues, students' essays, and our own thinking. If we study and name the fallacies, however, we're less likely to mistake them for logical truth and make false assumptions as a result. For the tools to recognize and dismantle false assumptions and biases, check out Stephen's Guide to Logical Fallacies (http://onegoodmove.org/fallacy/welcome.htm), and Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies (https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com).
Spend time in the company of those not like yourself. Sense how they share the human experience just as you do. We volunteer at a local mental health center or soup kitchen. We invite friends from different faiths and races to dinner. We hike a local mountain with gay/lesbian/transgender colleagues and work on large community projects with individuals whose political views differ from ours.
It's much harder to dismiss someone's ideas or to hold tightly to biases/prejudices when we've spent considerable time in their company. They are no longer two-dimensional caricatures stored in some mental category and easily dismissed. Suddenly, they're individuals, our biases weaken and thoughtfulness grows.
Become a reflective practitioner. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards declares that the capacity to analyze teaching and reflect on what works and doesn't work and making changes accordingly is one of the five major pillars of highly accomplished practice. This is an overt skill set that must be taught to teachers, however, not assumed in them. We need to be able to connect the dots between decisions we make instructionally and the subsequent effect on students' learning. In close scrutiny such as this, we uncover hidden assumptions and biases that kept us from forming new insights.
Taking First Steps
Let's reinvigorate civics classes in middle schools, and let's carry teaching civil discourse into all subject areas. Realize that African-American parents in some communities have to caution their children about how to act in a non-threatening manner when they are around police officers. Muslim families in America live in fear that someone will associate them with terrorism.
Let's prove that we are open to revision in thinking and practice. Some of us look back at our own bias journeys and think, "If I knew back then what I know now…" Let's switch that, and do the thinking right now: What will we be saying about today's teaching biases and false assumptions 10 or 20 years from now? Let's grab that better version of ourselves and figure out what we can shed right now as wasteful or hurtful, then take the first steps to something more helpful to us and our students.
Rick Wormeli is a long-time classroom teacher turned writer and education consultant. He is the author of several books, including The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way (AMLE). He lives in Herndon, Virginia, and is working on a new book on homework.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, March 2016.
A principal's informal conversations helped guide a school's priorities
I began my tenure as principal at West Rowan Middle School in the Rowan-Salisbury School District in July 2015. As a newly hired principal, I maintain a keen focus on the school goals in our school improvement plan and work diligently with our great team to help make those goals a reality.
But when I was first hired at WRMS, I had many conversations about what the school should focus on to help make our great school better. As leaders in our schools, we can’t discount the power of these informal conversations. These conversations can have a huge impact on culture and morale by revealing the confidence and competence the staff has in certain areas.
I rely on these relationship-enhancing conversations to help provide direction and strategies for supporting our school. Some of these priorities include parent involvement and participation, communication with the staff, and improving what we do in the classroom, both as students and teachers.
As I review where I am with our goals I am focusing on several points to help make sure that we are not only reaching our goals but are on the right track in terms of where our school is headed:
- Clarity - Communicating with stakeholders is a major priority, this builds trust and relationships. Providing clarity for what we are actually trying to accomplish, how we will get there, and what we need to look like at the end is essential to driving the vision, building trust, and giving transparency to the process.
- Connecting - Whether it’s formal goals from the school improvement plan or similar concerns communicated by different stakeholders, leaders have to ensure that we are connecting with the people in the process, whether it’s students, teachers, or parents, and giving a voice to everyone. After all, we lead people and manage initiatives.
- Culture - While everything can’t be a priority, as school leaders we have to be critical discerners of the things brought to our desks. Sometimes the school is not ready for a change even though the desire may be there. The culture determines the shift and we have to respect that.
Take time to look at your formal and informal focuses and use these lenses to help bring to fruition some of your priorities.
Derek L. McCoy is the proud principal of West Rowan Middle School in Salisbury, North Carolina.
See Derek McCoy as a general session speaker at AMLE2016.
Education reaches beyond the walls of this charter school.
To produce the level of competency in our students that not only allows them to succeed individually but spurs them to be contributing members of society, we must develop our students' gifts and talents to their maximum potential.
Richland Academy School of Excellence (RASE) in Mansfield, Ohio, is a K–8 charter school that continually works to raise the level of success and competency in each scholar. Designed as an integrated fine arts school, RASE offers approximately 160 scholars a core academic program infused with technology, music, dance, and visual and performing arts. Despite a poverty level of 82.5%, RASE ranks in the top 15% of 400 charter schools in Ohio.
The shift to an organizational framework and research-based practices along with a dedicated, highly qualified staff has allowed RASE to push forward and explore educational concepts such as the flipped classroom model, blended learning, and project-based learning. Additionally, project studies encourage our scholars to research and enrich their knowledge on topics of their choice, and present their knowledge in ways that infuse technology and the visual and performing arts.
Teaching Beyond Walls
At RASE, we talk about "teaching beyond the walls," and we do just that! RASE was the first school in the United States to Skype with the National Archives, the U. S. Capitol, and The White House Historical Society. The National Archives now uses the RASE framework for their Skype sessions with other schools.
Our seventh graders had the opportunity to Skype with the curator of the National Science and Technology Museum of Leonardo Da Vinci in Italy! Middle school classes have also Skyped with authors of books they're reading in class to gain the author's perspective and discuss the author's source for the content of the book. (See the August 2015 issue of AMLE Magazine for more about RASE's Skyping with history activities.)
And not to be left out, the RASE kindergarten students learned the Bill of Rights for Constitution Day using a song entitled "Our Favorite 10," which the kindergarten teacher wrote. Eager to share that knowledge, they sang the song for the eighth graders who were studying the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Building Community and Parent Engagement
RASE builds community within the school through a program of Bigs & Littles. The middle school students work with younger students to support them in reading and math or independent projects. The connections between the Bigs & Littles extend beyond the classroom throughout the year.
Many RASE middle school scholars direct and perform in musical groups, dances, and plays, and are featured at community events and on local television. Working artists on staff who are active in the arts community bring their love of the arts to RASE while giving our scholars the ability to see professional artists at work.
Because of these working artists' connections with the outside community, scholars have the opportunity to attend symphony and theater productions. We also are able to procure opera companies and multi-cultural music groups for performances at RASE.
Artistic scholars are trained in multiple mediums, from general art classes to advanced art techniques. The training culminates in an Art Museum Gallery of scholars' work for the annual arts festival. After the festival, RASE honors the work of the artists by framing and displaying their art throughout the school.
Parent engagement is essential to creating community and builds the connection between home and school. During each nine-week period, RASE holds a Parent Night event with 300–450 parents in attendance. On the last day of school, parents bring food and supplies for a picnic and serve the meal.
Freedom of Choice
As we consider the organizational framework of Richland Academy School of Excellence, the other dynamic that cannot be overlooked is the regard for the teaching styles of our educators. By design, a professional environment, combined with administrative support, allows teachers to collaborate, thrive, and produce unprecedented achievements that affect the learning of our scholars. Teachers model the design elements of exploration, research, application, and self-expression as they become immersed in technology and the cultural arts.
In the same way scholars are given choices, teachers are given the freedom to make choices regarding the manner in which curriculum is presented and the freedom to explore innovative, research-based techniques in their classrooms.
At Richland Academy School of Excellence, we thrive on teaching beyond the walls!
Sandra Sutherland is superintendent of the Richland Academy School of Excellence, Mansfield, Ohio.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, March 2016.
The best schools are those that continue to experiment.
The term "middle school" is an unassuming part of the vernacular of our educational system. During the past 50 years, middle schools have come to represent what is now the typical organization of schools for grades 6–8.
But middle schools were not always the standard. In fact, the middle school model is actually an "experimental" model, begun in the 1960s, representing a break from the then-typical junior high school structure. This great experiment was developed in response to the clear need to address the unique needs of early adolescents during a period of dramatic social and political change.
Embracing strong content delivery, skill development, and a supportive social-emotional environment, middle schools were a shift toward fulfilling the progressive aims of education. The experimental label stuck. For example, the New York State Department of Education still considers middle schools to be "experimental organizations" (www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/mle/exper.html).
Today, our culture is again changing at a rapid pace. With technological advances, constant social connectivity, and a changing college and career landscape, there is no more relevant organization to help young adolescents navigate these changes than a truly experimental middle school.
Being a middle school is not about housing grades 6–8 in a single building; it is about addressing the unique developmental needs of young adolescents. Often this has been described as "whole-child" education.
Some in the field believe the emphasis on educating the whole child has been pushed by the wayside with the renewed emphasis on learning standards, data-driven instruction, and career and college readiness. However, these initiatives are at the heart of the mission of middle schools and a whole-child approach, and draw on the dual characteristics of high-quality, content-area-focused instruction and a richly supportive developmental environment for students.
Middle Schools Are the Core
The Common Core State Standards, at their foundation, represent what middle level education is about. With an emphasis on collaboration, creation, and synthesis, high-quality middle schools have been empowering students with opportunities to engage in deep learning represented by the Common Core State Standards.
Middle schools were founded on the concept of creating cross-curricular teams of teachers that have the ability to collaborate on projects and activities to help foster connections and reinforce skills across disciplines.
High-quality middle schools have long put project-based learning, reading and writing across content areas, and active learning at the heart of their instructional practice. The Common Core State Standards challenge us all to bring a renewed openness to this kind of experimentation in our instructional practice and require a willingness to put students in the driver’s seat of their education.
Data-Driven Instruction in the Middle
It goes beyond numbers. Data-driven instruction is informed instruction. It’s the use of high-quality formative and summative assessments that provide clear information to the teacher and the learner about their current progress toward instructional objectives or learning targets.
In middle schools, a whole-child perspective is facilitated with the power of technology tools that collect and analyze information about student progress. With this information, teams of teachers can have informed discussions that are based on data as opposed to solely on perceptions. Team meetings become focused on identifying patterns in learning preferences, student essay writing, and effective instructional interventions, and can result in a fully connected student experience.
Each day, teachers are finding new ways to empower young adolescents with more and better information about their progress. This is a game changer. Students at the middle level want to know how they are doing. They want to be successful and know what they need to do to achieve their goals. And in this instantaneous age, students want to know now. Middle level educators recognize this and, with the help of gradebook portals, are able to give students the opportunity to regularly monitor their own progress.
Career and College Readiness
Ensuring students are ready to pursue their college and career goals is critical at every level of schooling. However, it is in the middle level that students are best able to explore their interests through diverse coursework in many disciplines and engage in a variety of extracurricular activities.
Again, using a whole-child approach, middle schools have for generations ensured that students experience encores or specials that expose them to technology, family and consumer sciences, art, music, health, and other coursework that increases their awareness of academic fields of study and potential career options.
Today, high-quality middle schools offer character education activities, advanced high school credit courses taught by middle level educators, mentoring and advising for struggling students, and engaging 21st-century extracurricular activities like Google Hour of Code, social media clubs, and robotics competitions.
Middle Schools For Today
Never have the stakes been higher. Never have the needs been greater. Never has the need for truly experimental middle schools been clearer. Never have they been more relevant.
High standards, informed instruction and a focus on preparing young adolescents for their future college and career plans represent the best of what we do in the middle.
Robert Messia is the principal of Algonquin Middle School in the Averill Park Central School District in New York.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, March 2016.
Working collaboratively to create and sustain effective middle schools.
Harrington Emmerson, a U.S. efficiency engineer and business theorist, said, "The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss. As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble."
Principles are important. Like many novice teachers, I looked forward to my first day with students in my own classroom. I had been a teacher for many years, but in contexts quite different than the seventh grade special education history class that was the first step in my journey as a middle level educator in a large suburban public school system.
In an era before No Child Left Behind and "highly qualified teachers," I spent a lot of time qualifying myself. Among the library of teacher self-help books I added to my shelf was Harry Wong's The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher. One of the most important things I took away—and used immediately with my new charges—is the distinction between policy, procedures, and rules.
Policies define the things we value most; they describe at the highest level what our community holds as common beliefs and understandings about education.
Procedures are, conceptually, a level down; they define how we put those principles into practice in the day-to-day operation of individual learning communities (teams, departments, and individual classrooms).
Rules stipulate the agreed-upon limits of community which explain at a very specific level what must be done when and by whom (and the natural consequences that follow from following or failing to follow them). But at my school, principles had priority.
Like the late 19th-century industrial practices that Emmerson had set out to improve, the process of education works better when we use principles as the basis of decisions about methods. Why comes before what and how.
On my first day as a middle school teacher, I quite by accident entered a global community of practice with its own policies, procedures, and rules. My first middle school was in the process of becoming an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School. IB programs help prepare students for living and working in a complex, highly interconnected world.
The IB Middle Years Programme (MYP), designed as an inclusive, whole-school program for young adolescents, offers 11- to 16-year-old students opportunities to make practical connections between their studies and the real world, preparing them for success in school and in life. Working together, the MYP community translates these educational goals into the standards, practices, and requirements to which we hold ourselves mutually accountable.
What distinguishes the IB's programs from the world's many excellent educational opportunities is the fact that the IB embraces a community of educators who believe that international education can help create a better and more peaceful world.
For all the diversity that we encounter in global education systems, the IB has found over the years a wide swath of common ground in which we can work with many different kinds of schools. The goal is to develop a shared understanding of excellence in education.
This collaborative process is distilled into program standards and practices that outline a set of criteria against which IB World Schools and the IB can evaluate success in the implementation of the MYP and the IB's other programs.
IB standards provide a broad, wide-ranging perspective from which to make judgments about how to engage in the IB's mission to make a better world through education. They consider educational philosophy, school organization (leadership and administration, resources, and support structures) and curriculum (collaborative planning, written curriculum, teaching and learning, and assessment).
Individual practices are concerned with pedagogical leadership, language, inclusion/special education needs policy, academic honesty, professional development, interdisciplinary learning, learning objectives for each year of the program, skills development, curriculum mapping within and across grades, conceptual and contextual curriculum design, unit planning, curriculum renewal and review, inquiry-based teaching practice, agreed-upon standards for student achievement, and service learning.
At the discipline-specific level, requirements are specified to ensure that the curriculum remains broad and balanced. For example, physical and health education courses must engage students in physical activity for at least 50% of the allocated teaching hours. To provide a globally assured standard, students' grades for achievement in the programs' culminating project must be externally moderated by the IB.
Elements of Excellence
We are finding international agreement on excellence in middle level education that extends well beyond the IB community. Important research from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) highlighted seven aspects of high-quality learning and three dimensions for organizing powerful learning environments. In the Nature of Learning and Innovating Learning Environments reports, the OECD noted the importance of
Making learning central, encouraging engagement, and being a place where learners come to understand themselves as learners.
Ensuring that learning is social and often collaborative.
Being highly attuned to learners' motivations and the importance of emotions.
Being acutely sensitive to individual differences, including prior knowledge.
Being demanding for each learner but without excessive overload.
Using assessments consistent with these aims, with strong emphasis on formative feedback.
Promoting horizontal connectedness across learning activities and subjects, in and out of school.
Innovating the pedagogical core (all elements and the dynamics that connect them).
Becoming "formative organizations" with strong learning leadership.
- Opening up to partnerships and creative synergies—especially with other schools and learning environments.
The OECD's most recent discussion of Schooling Redesigned: Towards Innovative Learning Systems continues this line of thinking. This international approach focuses on "the need to ground innovative learning environments in knowledge about how people learn and the circumstances in which they do this most powerfully; the need to understand in detail and to be inspired by actual learning environments; and the need to move beyond individual cases to deep understanding of how to grow, scale and sustain innovative practice."
The most current list of good practices includes
Attending to learners' motivation and agency.
Ensuring high levels of teacher collaboration.
Promoting mixed, personalized pedagogical practices.
Providing for interdisciplinarity.
Creating chains, networks, and communities of practice.
- Establishing global connections beyond local system boundaries.
What strikes me about all this "emerging" international consensus is that middle level educators and the IB community have known what works all along!
There are in fact many interesting parallels between the IB and the middle school movement. Both emerged in a global wave of education reform in the 1960s. As the first edition of This We Believe was being approved in the 1980s, international educators were conceiving what would eventually become the IB Middle Years Programme.
A "re-vision" was in place that described what it means to be a developmentally responsive middle level school by the early 1990s—within months of the first international schools being authorized to deliver the MYP.
Today, the IB works with AMLE to support schools that are committed to similar standards and practices about curriculum, instruction, and assessment; leadership and organization; and culture and community. Together we have moved from concepts, toward institutionalization, and on to a forward-looking concern for individual actors and actions.
Most important, the MYP continues to care most about one thing: how to meet the needs of students in early adolescence. Guiding principles attuned to the needs of learners ages 11–16 have marked the MYP since its beginning. The MYP continues to encourage students to become active, compassionate, and lifelong learners who are inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring.
Contemporary MYP educators still focus on how best to meet the needs of early adolescents: young people who are confronted with a vast and often bewildering array of choices in a complex and rapidly changing world. The MYP frames opportunities that students in this special age group need so that they can explore their expanding concerns—as well as a growing awareness of themselves and the worlds we construct with them.
There are thousands of MYP classrooms around the world. As Emmerson said, "as to methods, there may be a million and then some" that MYP teachers use to engage their students; there are myriad ways to lead MYP students in inquiries that empower them to become responsible citizens of local, national, and global communities.
From the novice to the most seasoned teachers of middle level learners, there are clear and largely agreed-upon principles that explain why we think about education this way. Happily, those principles are few in number, and widely shared. From an international perspective, we are working ever more collaboratively to create and sustain effective schools for turning what one country has called the "wasted years" into years of wonder.
Robert Harrison is head of Middle Years Programme (MYP) development with the International Baccalaureate. Before joining the IB as manager for global engagement, he was a special educator and teacher leader in
U.S. public schools.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, March 2016.
The best leaders learn as much as they can about those who are different than they are. The more we experience different countries, cultures, languages, religions, and people, the broader our world view becomes and the less narrow-minded our thinking is. The most fulfilling way to broaden our horizons is through international travel—which feels like oxygen for my soul.
But international travel is expensive, so when it's prohibitive, leaders need look no further than their own community to experience something new. Perhaps it's an ethnic restaurant, or a service at a church outside your faith, or a visit to an area where the majority of people speak a different language.
When you are intentional about experiences outside your own comfort zone, you can leave behind the preconceived notions and barriers you may have built up over time. Understanding and becoming more open to diversity can only strengthen your ability to lead others.
Finding Similarities Over Differences
On a visit to Mumbai, India, to speak at an educator's conference, I was gazing out my 20th floor hotel window. To my left was the sea and to my right was the lively city of Mumbai. Even from the 20th floor, I could hear the hum of the city. Vehicles darted in and out of traffic while people walked along the side of the streets, all with a purpose I knew nothing about.
As I gazed down at the busy city life, my eye caught a group of Indian children playing in an open outdoor area. By their uniforms, I knew they were students. It was obviously an unstructured time of day, perhaps the change from morning school to afternoon school or perhaps simply a recess break.
I was overjoyed to watch them at play, and to my delight, all the way from my window, I saw how similar they were to other groups of children I have observed in my travels to Africa, Europe, South America, Canada, China, Italy, and the United Kingdom. I could not hear what they were talking about and I had no idea about their ages or grades or backgrounds. All I had was a visual of their play from above.
AMLE talks with author Nikki Woodson Talk about Middle Level Leadership
The description of what I saw could have been a description of a schoolyard in many parts of the world. I saw smiles, laughter, and harmless teasing as students tagged each other and ran away.
I saw a child put her hand on another's shoulder in what looked like a gesture of support. I watched a small group of boys engaged in an intense conversation about something that was so passionate for them that they used large hand gestures to explain it to each other.
Imagine how wonderful our world could be if we embraced our similarities first and respected any differences second? How would your leadership change if you focused on ways you and your staff, parents, and students are similar rather than how you are different?
Leadership as an Unexpected Journey
During a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, I took an Arabian desert safari to get away from the opulence of the city and see the organic desert. An SUV carried me and my companions about 45 minutes away from the city to the middle of the desert.
Our driver stopped at the most amazing sand dunes I had ever seen. While we waited in the vehicle, listening to Middle Eastern music, the driver hopped out and let some air out of the tires. When he got back in, he changed the radio to classical music and said with a smile on his face, "Ok, time to fasten your seatbelts."
Within seconds, we were barreling over the sand dunes at tremendous speeds, sliding up and down. After the first few moments of shock, squeals and shrieks broke out. We were scared, delighted, entertained. We all had an amazing experience simply by "fastening our seatbelts."
This Arabian desert safari experience is a colorful illustration of our leadership life. Sometimes circumstances tell us to just "fasten our seatbelt" but we go against that advice, fight it, ask too many questions. We must know what is going to happen next or we won't enjoy it. Sometimes, we just need to fasten our seatbelts and go where the journey takes us, because, despite our best planning and intentions, leadership can be like an unexpected and unplanned ride.
Listen carefully to what your leadership life is telling you, and when the time comes, sit back, relax, fasten your seatbelt, and go on the amazing leadership journey life has in store!
Nikki Woodson is superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township
in Indianapolis, Indiana. She also serves on the board of governors for International Baccalaureate and is a co-founder of Change Makers International, which focuses on global growth and contribution.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2016.