Sometimes teaching can cause tunnel vision. Teachers often look inside their school district, building, or classroom for resources to help their students learn, neglecting the partnerships outside the immediate school community that can provide invaluable resources.
One such partnership was forged between a school district, a local park district, and a university.
In the Beginning
The partnership began at the university, where the middle childhood teacher education program applied to the Cleveland Foundation for grant money available to foster relationships between organizations within the community.
The next step was to find a partner in the community. The university teacher education program personnel approached the local park district because it had an Educational Learning Center (ELC) with classrooms and hosted school groups for field trips. The partnership made sense.
The park district had recently unearthed a set of artifacts from an old chair factory located along Jordan Creek and wanted to incorporate it into a learning experience for students visiting the park. Having established this initial partnership, the program and park district asked a local school district to participate in this project as well.
The curriculum director and all of the fourth grade teachers and students in the district agreed to be partners on this project. The park district then invited these teachers and students to a day-long visit to the ELC as part of their curriculum.
Goals and Project Overview
Each organization involved had the same overarching mission: to help students learn. However, each organization also brought its own goals to the table.
The school district is a large, suburban, high-poverty, highly diverse district, and its students don't often have the opportunity to experience other environments. The primary goal of the school district, then, was to provide its students with a learning experience outside the classroom.
The goals of the park district were to expose students to the resources available in the parks and educate them about the history of the community.
The university teaching program's goals were to give its students the opportunity to work with a different student population and learn to incorporate learning experiences outside the classroom into lesson plans.
Once each organization was on board with the project and the goals were established, the multifaceted, year-long project began.
First, the university students who would be planning and teaching the lessons took their science methods courses at the park's ELC, where they could immerse themselves in the park setting and access the resources provided by park staff.
Using these resources, the university students developed an interdisciplinary unit based on the artifacts discovered at the site of the chair factory. The theme of this unit was how "place" shapes society, and it highlighted how the creek and local environment affected settlements, factories, and transportation using artifacts to draw conclusions. The unit included three sets of lessons for the fourth grade students to complete before, during, and after they visited the park.
In the spring, all the fourth grade teachers from the school district received a copy of the lesson plans created by the university students and park staff along with a kit that included all the necessary materials for the unit. Teachers were asked to use the lessons and materials to prepare their students with foundational knowledge before they arrived at the ELC.
After the teachers had adequate time to use the kits, all of the fourth grade students (approximately 300 students) took a field trip to the park where park staff and university students led class for the day. After the visits, the fourth grade teachers completed the post-visit lessons with their students and took a survey about their experience with the project.
Types of Lessons
The unit as a whole covered multiple content areas and topics, but all material related back to the artifacts found at the chair factory. For example, students created their own water wheel models to discover how a water wheel produces energy. The university students and park staff then expanded on this experience to explore the difference between kinetic and potential energy.
Another lesson involved students reading actual letters written by a young girl who lived near the factory when it was in operation. This lesson gave clues to her daily life and social perspective. Students made ink using crushed berries which they loaded into fountain pens to write their own letters.
To explore the evolution of transportation, university students and park staff had the fourth-graders solve "movement scenarios." For example, students had to create solutions to a scenario in which a tall tree falls over railroad tracks and blocks the train. After all the scenarios had solutions, students weighed the pros and cons of different modes of transportation and compared them to each other.
The final lesson involved using a bed sheet to represent an area of land. Students threw pom-poms into the air to simulate rain drops, observed where they landed on the sheet, and discussed where the water would drain and the role watersheds play in the environment.
Benefits of the Project
When the project was complete, university faculty collected the evaluations from the fourth grade teachers and surveyed the university students to evaluate the benefits of the project.
Overall, feedback on the project was positive and all partners reported that their initial goals were met. The fourth grade teachers said that the experience in the park and the accompanying lessons were a great opportunity for their students to make connections between the community and what they were studying in the classroom. They appreciated that the pre- and post-field trip lesson plans were accompanied by all necessary materials.
Feedback from the park district was also positive: the activities that were created based on the artifacts are now part of their permanent catalog of field trip options for other school districts. However, their greatest accomplishment was exposing students to the resources that the park has to offer.
The university students involved in the project also reported benefits, including the opportunity to work alongside park staff in an out-of-class environment while learning how to create opportunities for students to build upon in the traditional classroom. This dispelled their previously held beliefs that subjects such as science and social studies are best taught in a classroom that is teacher-led and based on a textbook.
The university students also reported that working with this diverse student population helped them better understand how students' backgrounds can affect their learning.
Just the Beginning
An overarching result of this project was the relationships formed. Before this project, interactions among the participating groups were either nonexistent or limited in scope. During the experience of working together, each organization learned first hand about the resources the other had to offer and how to use these resources to meet their own individual goals.
A framework has been created to establish future partnerships with other organizations. As this network of community members continues to grow, so will the positive outcomes on student learning!
Robin Dever is assistant professor/program coordinator at Kent State University-Geauga, Burton, Ohio.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.
In the midst of a busy morning arrival time, a few middle school students greeted me as I walked through the crowded hallway toward the room in which my meeting was being held. "Sup Dr. W. Are you coming to our classes today?" one student asked.
I replied that I would try if I had time, but that I was there for a meeting. The student went on to tell me that he didn't understand what we do in meetings all the time. When I explained that we meet so we can try to improve teaching and learning, he responded, "Ah man, Dr. W, you don't need to have a meeting on that. Just ask me!"
Sitting in my meeting I reflected on this brief and casual conversation. I got excited at the thought of asking kids about their school experience, and decided to talk with students during their lunch period—the most informal part of their day.
I visited three different middle school lunchrooms, and although I blocked off a short amount of time for each visit, ended up staying longer than I expected. Not only did they provide me with rich information, they also asked me some very powerful questions about the process of teaching and learning.
My conversations with these amazing students in their own unfiltered middle school voices, shared here, offers much middle school leaders can learn from. However, the most meaningful learning for leaders comes if they replicate this activity in their own schools.
Question: What makes a middle school awesome? Describe the ideal middle school.
- Freedom to be who I want to be.
- Teachers who let us be in charge of our own learning, they aren't too teacher-like.
- Nice teachers who respect that we are going through things, just like they are as adults.
- Fun in the class, but not crazy. Teachers have to be sorta strict when needed.
- Choices at lunch.
- Down time during the day so my brain doesn't overload.
- When we can use our technology as a part of learning, just like a textbook.
- Snacks in class. I can't focus when I'm hungry and I'm a growing adolescent so I'm always hungry.
- No bullies. Everyone just respects each other even if they don't like everyone.
- Modified class times for those of us who learn differently.
- Sports at all grades.
- Staff would understand the power of play.
Question: What is your favorite part of middle school?
- All the activities I can get involved in.
- Meeting new friends.
- Lockers instead of cubbies like in elementary school.
- When it is time to go to my favorite class during the day.
- Down time at lunch.
- Moving classes instead of staying in just one all day like elementary school.
- Times when I can be social with my friends.
- Learning something new.
- Getting my brain ready for high school.
Question: What is one thing you would change about middle school?
- Lunch times. Some start too early and some go too late.
- More time during passing period.
- Ease up on the dress code. We are just expressing ourselves.
- Add in more opportunities for free time.
- Allow us to design the lunch menu sometimes with the cafeteria staff.
- Overall use more technology in classroom.
- It's how we are wired.
Question: What do you wish all middle school teachers knew about how you learn best?
- We don't always say when we don't understand so we don't look dumb in front of our friends. Give us other private ways to say we don't understand.
- Our minds move quick. Keep the activities changing all the time.
- We learn at different paces.
- We feel things and have valid emotions that impact our work.
- We need to talk to learn.
- Fun is required.
- Different kids connect in different ways.
- Group work like the real world.
Question: What advice would you give middle school administrators?
- Give kids a clean slate coming from elementary school.
- Change up the lunch food and make it reflect our cultures.
- More community-building activities between staff and students could make learning better in the classroom.
- Try more peer-led class activities.
- Community service during school as a regular part for everyone, not only during certain parts of the year or as a punishment.
- When you have to deal with a situation, stay on both sides until you hear everyone out.
- Take care of mean kids.
- Find and hire more teachers who look like me (African American).
- Don't give up on us.
- Take it easy on the fifth graders; thelearning curve is high
Question: What advice would you give an incoming six grader?
- Just do the homework.
- Stay out of drama with friends.
- Practice lockers before school starts.
- Come prepared.
- Make good choices. They will find out if you didn't anyway.
- Know your way around the school.
- Get involved right away with some activity that is of interest to you.
- Be aware of bullies, and know that someone hurt them before they hurt others.
- Meet new people.
- Don't get on teachers' bad sides; it never ends well when you do.
- Be ready for the work.
- Help out others around you.
- Make the best of it, you are only a few yearsaway from the big beast, HIGH SCHOOL.
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.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.
How can you determine if your decisions are colored by emotion?
Have you ever:
Made a decision that backfired?
Thought that hindsight is 20/20?
- Wished you had made a different decision?
As they share in their February 3, 2009, Harvard Business Review article "Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions," Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein, researchers in the field of decision neuroscience, contend that the brain uses pattern recognition and "emotional tagging" to make decisions.
Pattern recognition integrates information from many parts of the brain and helps the brain make quick decisions. For example, "grandmaster" chess players can recognize almost 25,000 patterns—almost simultaneously—quickly sort them, then determine the best move.
However, when the pattern recognition is emotionally tagged, decisions can go horribly wrong. According to Campbell, Whitehead, and Finkelstein, "Emotional tagging is the process by which emotional information attaches itself to the thoughts and experiences stored in our memories. This emotional information tells us whether to pay attention to something or not, and it tells us what sort of action we should be contemplating (immediate or postponed, fight or flight)."
Let's take a quick look at examples of the three types of emotional tags (names and situations have been fictionalized):
1. Inappropriate Self-Interest.
John was a new middle school principal, much younger than most of his staff. He realized that he didn't have the expertise that many of his staff members did, yet none of them had expressed interest in the position when it opened.
The school counselor had been there many years and was an expert in setting up the schedule. John knew cognitively that whoever made the master schedule basically controlled the instructional program, but emotionally his first loves were the sports program and student engagement. Because he believed strongly that leaders should focus on their strengths and expertise, and because he knew he didn't have time to do everything, he was delighted that the counselor agreed to create the schedule.
The Math Department had hired a new young teacher to teach Algebra I, and unlike the students in the other Algebra I class, her students excelled. However, the counselor disliked the new Algebra I teacher and scheduled her Algebra I class at the same time as PE and chorus. The other Algebra I class was taught by a very poor teacher. There were multiple complaints from parents about the schedule. At the end of the year, the school's passing rate in Algebra I was 15%.
2. Presence of Distorting Attachments
John was grateful to one of his mentors who was a teacher in the building. Sally was his best friend's mother, and she knew how difficult John's home life had been. It was because of her that he went into teaching. Sally had coached him as a beginning teacher and he relied heavily her advice.
When Sally's husband died unexpectedly about a year after John became the principal, her performance dropped significantly. Her absences increased, her classroom was chaotic, and she did not do formative assessments.
John was at a loss. He felt that he owed Sally so much that he covered for her and made excuses. One day there was a fight in her classroom in which a student was badly hurt. Sally had gone to the lounge for lunch, was late getting back, and had left the classroom unattended.
3. Misleading Memories
TJ had been a "pistol" when he was in middle school. Difficult, cocky, risk-taking, he always "pushed the envelope." He'd had a coach who mentored him, helped him meet the norms and expectations for behavior, and basically challenged him to channel his energy into high academic expectations and sports performance.
Fast-forward several years. TJ is now a winning coach. He has a student, Gary, who reminds him of himself at that age. He is mentoring Gary. One day TJ came into his office and Gary was lying on the floor, seemingly asleep. When TJ tried to wake him, he realized Gary was drunk. TJ closed the door to his office to let Gary sleep it off. TJ did not report it to the principal.
The next day, Gary bragged to some of his friends that he had come to school drunk and that TJ had let him sleep it off in his office. The principal called TJ in for a conversation and explained that TJ could lose his teaching certification.
These are all examples of how emotional tagging can disrupt effective decision making.
Recognizing the Emotional Tags
How can you determine if your decisions are colored by emotional tags? Campbell and colleagues recommend the following:
Inject fresh experience and/or analysis.
Introduce further debate and challenge.
Lay out the range of options.
- Require some decisions to be finalized at a level above the person.
You might also consider whether your decisions are affected by your role in the Karpman Triangle (Figure 1). Your role can change with the situation. In one setting you may be a bully, in another setting a rescuer, and in another setting a victim. Once you are in the triangle in a situation, you will eventually take on all three roles—boundaries will disappear because nobody will take ownership.
To stay out of the triangle, ask probing questions. Here's an example of using questions to avoid the triangle and the emotional tags associated with being in the triangle:
When my son was in second grade, he came home from school and told me he was "bored." I asked him, "Whose problem is that?" He replied, "The teacher's."
He was presenting himself as a victim and asking me to go to school and "rescue" him. So I asked him, "Is the teacher bored?" He said, "No, I am." So I said, "Then it isn't the teacher's problem. It's your problem. Since it's your problem, how can you solve it?"
Had I gone to the school and "bullied" the teacher in order to "rescue" my son who was a "victim," chances would have been very good that the teacher would have felt like a "victim" and gone to the principal to be "rescued." The principal likely would have called me and "bullied" me for being so insensitive to the teacher and blaming the teacher for my son's problems. And then I would have felt like a "victim" and told my husband so that he would "rescue" me and go to school and "bully" the principal. The cycle would continue.
My recommendation is to ask yourself these four questions as you make a decision:
Regarding the individuals involved, am I in a triangle with any of them?
Do I have an attachment to any of the individuals involved? If so, is the attachment distorted in any way (I feel sorry for him, I owe her, she is my friend, I know he has a rough situation, etc.)?
Does this situation remind me of something that happened before? Am I seeing this as a pattern rather than as a unique situation?
- Is there some sort of personal gain for me in this situation (someone else will do something I hate to do, I will get promoted, I will not have to deal with this person, I have something else I would rather spend my time doing, etc.)?
If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," find someone who is not involved at all, whose advice you value, and lay out the situation for him or her. Listen to the advice. Also consider the four actions that Campbell and colleagues recommend.
Fewer Flawed Decisions
John Maxwell said, "Each success gives you an admission ticket to a bigger problem." If I had a dollar for every decision I've made that had an emotional tag on it that I (at least initially) wasn't aware of, I'd be a millionaire!
The big problem with flawed decisions is that they take so much time to "clean up." Time is a precious commodity. Fewer flawed decisions, therefore, give you more time to do what you love to do and want to focus on.
Ruby K. Payne is an educator, author, and founder of aha! Process, Inc.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2016.
Every one and every school has a story made up of ingredients. When I taught Basic English in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I often had food on my mind. It wasn't because I was particularly hungry or because I was creating elaborate food-related units for my young adolescent scholars.
Food became a constant part of my life because every day after school, I drove home to go cook in a restaurant. In that culinary work, I found a great way to serve others and practice the art of dicing, sautéing, and shrimp deveining; I also discovered the perfect metaphor for education. And the questions started to simmer as I realized the education–food connection. If lesson planning was a food, what kind of food would it be? If larger school reform was like food prep, what kind of food prep would it be?
I still practice this cognitive exercise and often encourage other people to give it a shot—for two reasons. First, I believe in the power of metaphors and creative thinking. Second, I think that the huge, abstract notion of middle level education can be better understood when we try to connect it to something tangible and concrete.
This is definitely the case for the 16 Characteristics of an Effective Middle School that we find in This We Believe. What would happen if we engaged with each of the 16 characteristics and connected them with the culinary world? What would we learn? What would we gain? What dishes would we cook up in the critical middle level kitchen?
To get to the heart of it all, perhaps this query should be our start: If the 16 Characteristics of an Effective Middle School from This We Believe were a food for middle level education, what would they be?
The best restaurants begin and flourish when all of their cooks create stellar dishes with the same ingredients—and with a shared appreciation of those they serve. The most effective and amazing middle grades schools grow in the same manner. When taken together, the 16 characteristics create a compelling set of ingredients for the entire recipe of middle level education. With these essential ingredients, we can create a great educational meal to meet the cognitive, behavioral, and social-emotional diets of the young adolescents we serve.
In addition, because we value and understand our students, we can also tailor those ingredients so the meal can change and evolve to meet their unique needs as they, too, change and evolve.
Having a common set of ingredients not only helps us respond consistently to students' shifting realities, it also provides a framework that provides room for teacher creativity and for administrative collaboration—so each school can see what's missing and can cook up the meal that its students deserve.
So if students need more active learning, a school can add a cup of student choice out of the Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment part of the edu-pantry and watch its classroom menus come alive! If school leaders need to work on organizational structures, they can reach into the Leadership and Organization section and add a twist of creativity to its master bell schedule. If school culture needs to be safer, more inclusive, and more supportive, a school can look in the Culture and Community shelf and stir in a tablespoon of advisory and observe how it positively changes the climate and the overall recipe.
As educational cooks in the middle grades kitchen, we can create great schools for our students, but it means we need to reach up to the top shelf and grab the best ingredients—the 16 characteristics that make an effective and amazing middle grades school. It's the meal our students deserve.
Dru Tomlin is director of middle level services for AMLE.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2016.
The conflict between doing more with less and doing what is right and just for young adolescents is a difficult one for middle level educators to confront. For example, when district leaders determine that program cuts must be made, many often propose eliminating teaming at the middle level. They don't understand what teaming is and how important it is to the education of young adolescents.
And that's where we come in. We need to make our case at the district level for putting financial support into true teaming. We need to explain why it is so important. We need to be able to support our case for teaming when others ask, "Can't we just show kids we care about them?"
We need to share the research about how the young adolescent brain learns. For example, research shows that students struggle to learn when their brain is overloaded with negative emotions. As Lori Desautels, assistant professor in the school of education at Marian University explains, "When a continuous stream of negative emotions hijacks our frontal lobes, our brain's architecture changes, leaving us in a heightened stress-response state where fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, and sadness take over our thinking, logical brains."
Two strategies that educators can use to help stave off these negative emotions for middle level learners are teaming and advisory.
When I was a middle level principal, the staff spent countless hours in teams discussing the emotional needs of their students. They believed that by getting to know each student and providing a positive learning environment, they were doing what was best for kids.
Also, as teams, they were able to develop learning activities that helped students make connections to what they were learning across the curriculum. Our former students often reflect about how well they understood ancient cultures because of the Egypt Day that one team planned. The day helped students take separate pieces of knowledge and synthesize them into coherent learning that encompassed all academic areas. They also had a chance to be creative, creating costumes and artwork that was appropriate to the time period.
The advisory relationship is another core tenet of effective middle level education. The opportunity to develop a positive relationship with a concerned and caring adult is critical for young adolescents. Knowing that they have an advocate who cares about them is important when negative thoughts are flowing through their brains, overwhelming them with feelings of doubt.
True teaming and a high-quality relationship between advisor and advisee are core concepts in effective middle level schools.
Tom Burton, is associate superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, May 2016.
Bringing effective leadership to a new school in Luxembourg.
When Atert-Lycèe Redange, a middle-secondary school in Luxembourg, opened its doors in 2008 to 360 students, Claude Boever's dream became a reality. Today, the school serves 1,200 students on a pristine campus located in the village of Redange near the Attert River.
As the school was being designed and constructed, Boever, who is the director (principal), assembled a planning team of 16 teachers, social workers, and school leaders to work closely with him to create a vision for Atert-Lycèe Redange that would make it unique in Luxembourg.
These pioneers began the conversation by asking themselves an essential question: What makes an effective school? The answer that emerged was this: an effective school has a principal who knows how to sustain change over time and build a culture that values continuous professional learning for the staff.
Claude Boever is an optimist, a risk-taker, and a relationship builder. He leads by walking around, taking the time to speak with students, teachers, and support staff. He stands alongside his staff. His actions reflect his beliefs. He shares stories and celebrates successes with his entire staff.
Five Principles for Principals
The success of Atert-Lycèe Redange is due primarily to five leadership principles.
Principle 1. Create an inclusive leadership team.
Claude Boever knew how to pave the road before driving on it. Before this new school opened, he assembled a leadership team of administrators, support staff, and teachers, based on a culture that values collaboration and collective leadership.
When the school opened, the team became a supportive resource and provided a point of access for the new staff. Today, the leadership team continues to support the school's vision and its mission statement.
The leadership team and the staff at Atert-Lycèe Redange have a clear vision. They developed a robust mission statement. They are a collaborative learning community and continually ask: What's so? So what? What's next? Their success endures because they continually revisit their structures and strategies.
They take time to celebrate their successes and learn from their missteps. They have created a risk-free environment in which everyone is focused on student success.
Principle 2. Promote research expeditions.
As they explored the question around what makes an effective school, the leadership team participated in research expeditions. The master's thesis of one of the leadership team members served as a catalyst for discussions and led them to discover best practices grounded in research-informed decision making. Engaging in research expeditions led them to uncover new ideas rather than rely on prevailing thinking.
The leadership team members were more like artists than craftspeople. They refused to cut and paste what they uncovered. Instead, they adapted the research findings and integrated them into the school's culture. Boever continues to support research expeditions whenever anyone proposes innovations or challenges existing practices.
Principle 3. Provide differentiated levels of support.
When Atert-Lycèe Redange opened its doors, many teachers came from very traditional schools and sometimes resisted the innovations and extensive after-hours professional development sessions.
Boever recognized the importance of focusing on each staff member's specific concerns. He knew that what is sometimes disguised as resistance is really fear of the unknown, lack of knowledge, or concern about managing change, and provided differentiated levels of support.
Principle 4. Challenge assumptions.
From the beginning, Boever promoted a culture that challenged the status quo. It was all about learning to color outside the lines.
The leadership team asked themselves what schooling could look like if long-standing structures and practices could be changed. Conformity gave way to innovation. The school day's start and end times were adjusted. Friday early dismissal was launched. Student counselors assumed a critical role in supporting students. Teachers developed activities to reinforce student learning through student-to-student and teacher-to-student activities.
The staff continues to review and re-imagine; however, the mission of the school is intact, sustained by core values that are non-negotiables. Those core values become the lens through which innovations emerge. In schools with a strong consensus on values and a belief in risk-taking, it becomes easier to introduce and sustain changes over time.
Principle 5. Run marathons, not sprints.
Leaders sometimes try to implement too many changes at once. These ripples of change can easily become great storms that lead to exhaustion. Implementing change and then sustaining it over time requires a constant, focused, steady pace.
Rather than introducing myriad changes, Boever continues to focus on and refine the innovations that were developed initially by the leadership team. He runs interference on introducing new changes that may get in the way.
The Jazz Ensemble
Boever's vision of a leader is not the conductor on a podium. He jams as a member of the leadership team, knowing when to lead, when to follow, and when to get out of the way. He knows that the school's vision and mission statement are non-negotiables, but he allows the staff to improvise around the edges like a jazz ensemble. It's all about knowing what the moment demands and being able to work on it collaboratively.
The day-to-day challenges require him to rely on the leadership of his staff. He views leadership as a process through which leaders and followers build trusting, influencing relationships. Their goal is foremost: to bring about successful transitions and continuous improvement that will affect student learning outcomes.
In this context, leaders become followers and followers become leaders. Letting everyone solo from time to time gives them a voice. Jamming is evident throughout the school as teachers meet regularly in department, grade level and student teams.
At Atert-Lycèe Redange, differentiated professional learning focuses on the individual teacher's needs. It affects program implementation and cultivates wonder, curiosity, and creativity.
The Journey Continues
Claude Boever realizes that his work will always be incomplete. He and his staff climb the mountain toward its peak, and when they reach the summit, they look for a more challenging mountain to climb.
The sparkle in Boever's eyes and the smile on his face are evidence that he understands his role as the educational leader. He knows that by applying five essential principles, the initiatives and programs that he began with a team of 16 eight years ago would withstand the test of time—and they have!
Michael Chirichello is an educator, researcher, and international consultant whose career spans 48 years as a teacher, principal, superintendent, professor, and university department chair.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, May 2016.
At a middle school in Texas, a fantasy football league was a win for the entire school.
Finding simple ways to boost teacher morale on a limited budget isn't easy. Surprisingly, fantasy football or another similar competitive multi-person activity might be the answer.
The Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) estimates that nearly 57 million people age 12 and above in the United States and Canada played fantasy sports in 2014 and that number is growing dramatically. What's the draw?
In addition to the fun of competition and the lure of making some money, many people enjoy competitive multi-person gameplay because of the social aspect that goes along with being in a league. Participants love the camaraderie inherent in participating in a league with their colleagues. Trash talking, boasting, and gloating are all part of the fun.
At one school in Southeast Texas, a fantasy football league scored more than just a win for the winning team—it was a win for the entire school.
Assessing Teacher Morale
Data suggest that between 40% and 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years; many of them cite low morale as a specific reason for leaving. Of course, morale is a complex topic, but several factors come into play, including:
Parents and community
Collegiality of staff
Participation in decision making
- Administrative support
When one or more of these factors is not addressed adequately, morale suffers.
Many administrators measure the staff morale of a school by walking the halls or talking to their staff. They simply have a "sense." However, instruments are available to measure morale in an organization or group setting. For example, the Staff Morale Questionnaire (SMQ), developed by former school administrator Kevin Smith, measures three primary categories of teacher morale: leadership synergy—how each teacher feels about the school's leadership; cohesive pride—how each teacher feels about working with fellow teachers; and personal challenge—how each teacher feels about working with the students. It's the measurement of cohesive pride that makes this instrument ideal for measuring group morale.
When Scott, a principal in a Southeast Texas school, started a fantasy football league on his campus, he was surprised at how popular it was and how engaged the teachers were—even those who had never played before. Could something as simple as implementing a fantasy football league improve morale?
At the beginning of the next school year, Scott co-authored and implemented a league at another school where he had no influence and studied the results. As it turns out, taking fantasy football into the school increased all three factors measured by the SMQ: leadership synergy, cohesive pride, and personal challenge.
Participants didn't need to be experienced players; in this study, 82% of league participants had no prior experience playing fantasy football. The league membership consisted of 1/3 males and 2/3 females, and included the principal and assistant principal. A control group on the campus did not participate.
Interpreting the Results
The study showed a significant change in the overall teacher morale score of the fantasy football participants versus the non-participants, an increase in the leadership synergy score of the participants versus the non-participants, and an increased in-group cohesive score of the participants versus the non-participants.
The teachers in this study first took the SMQ at the beginning of the school year—a time when there is excitement about their returning students and the promise of a new school year. By the time the winter holidays come around, teachers typically are weary and ready for a break. This was evident by a measured decrease in the overall morale score of the teachers in the control group who did not participate in the fantasy football league.
However, while the non-participants' morale score decreased, the scores of the teachers who participated in the fantasy football league increased. The same trends were evident in the cohesive pride scores of both groups. While both groups' leadership synergy scores increased, the fantasy football participants' score showed a greater increase than the non-participants' score.
The numbers showed the teachers' morale improved, but it didn't show how they felt about the program. Based on responses to a series of follow-up questions with five teachers, it seems they loved it. Each teacher believed there was a positive change in campus morale due to participation in a fantasy football league. One teacher explained this change by saying, "I felt like I grew a little bit closer to my coworkers and I was able to connect with them on something other than what we did in the classroom."
One veteran teacher told the story of forging a friendship with a third-year teacher with whom she had never spoken before. All but one teacher talked about making connections outside the school building.
Furthermore, all teachers talked about the role friendly banter played in making them closer. An added bonus was the banter the league created between the teachers and the two campus administrators. Simply said, competitive group gameplay can help bring down the barriers and open the channels of conversation.
The teachers identified the fantasy league as an icebreaker that helped open communication lines between them and the administrators because the common interest brought their group closer together. In fact, a well-respected veteran teacher called the fantasy football league, "one of the best things that's happened to this campus in a long time." The majority said they would play again the following year—the league is now entering its third year with more participants than ever.
Steps to Implementing a League
The following are basics steps for implementing a campus fantasy football league on campus:
1. Ask for volunteers. The league will be much more effective if it is filled with motivated participants, not people who are forced to play.
2. Choose a website to host the league. Many sites are available with free leagues, such as www.espn.com, www.yahoo.com, and www.nfl.com.
3. Choose a commissioner. This person will be in charge of setting up the league online, running the draft, and posting the results of the draft.
4. Pick a draft day. You will garner much more buy-in from participants if you have a live draft. Try to pick a day and time that can be consistent every year, such as during lunch on the last Friday before the students come back to school. Then the league can chip in for pizza and make it part of the draft day.
5. Have fun. The league will only be as good as you make it. Chip in for a neat trophy that will be displayed in the winner's classroom/office for the year. Or buy one that can be used from year to year with the proud winners' names displayed. It won't take long before friendly banter (trash talk) begins.
Communication and Collaboration
It wasn't necessarily the fantasy football league that increased the morale, but the sense of togetherness the league created among the faculty. A similar result could be elicited by activities such as professional learning communities, a book club, a weight loss challenge, a ropes course/adventure activity, or sports team such as softball or bowling. All these activities should engage the teachers and administrators on a campus and thus encourage communication and collaboration. Whatever activity is selected, the opportunity for improved morale is worth the effort.
Scott Ryan is the alternative school director for Port Neches-Groves Independent School District in Texas
Kaye Shelton is an associate professor of educational leadership in the Center for Doctoral Studies in the College of Education at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.
Published in AMLE Magazine
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.