Friday, May 23, 2014

What Is Your Vision?


As educators, especially those of us in leadership positions, one of the first things we are asked to consider is the Vision Statement for our school. You know what I am talking about... that bulleted list of generic phrases and words trying to capture what the schooling experience will be like for children. Here is an example in case it's been a while since you looked at your own vision statement...

Our vision is that children leave school with: 

A set of values -- being honesty, being determined and being considerate of others. 
A set of basic skills -- literacy, mathematical, scientific, artistic and social. 
Strong self-esteem and developed self-confidence. 
Tolerance and respect for others. 
We value the partnership which exists between school, families and our community in realizing this vision. 

WOW... those all sound like some pretty wonderful and important aspects in the development of a child. But, I have a bunch of questions and concerns...

  • Is there anything in that vision statement that makes identifiable to a specific school? (Sounds pretty generic)
  • What exactly does all the stuff described in the vision statement look like? 
  • What does being determined look like? 
  • How do we teach children about their levels of self-confidence? 
  • What role do the students play in this vision aside from being on the receiving end? 
  • Is this vision happening to kids and the community or are all constituent groups actively part of the process? 

The list of questions could go on and on but you get the idea - what is the point of this vision statement and what does it really mean for a school community? This is something I had been struggling with for years at our school because I wasn't quite sure about the best way to capture and represent our vision statement. There was one in place when I arrived six years and I made a decision to leave that one alone until I was in the school long enough to develop solid connections with every member of the community and to significantly impact and shape the tone and culture of the building. Well, at the start of this year, my sixth year at Cantiague, I decided this was the year to tackle the dreaded vision statement because I think we had finally achieved a group understanding of our vision and the direction we wanted to go with our vision!

from likeateam

So, at the start of the year, our Shared Decision Making Team was charged with this important task... re-write and re-create the Cantiague Elementary School Vision Statement. Our Shared Decision Making Team is comprised of six staff members, four parents, two students and me. We started by listing words that we felt best described Cantiague and the Cantiague experience. Generating that list (ended up being about 100 words and phrases) and then narrowing it down was quite a process that involved surveys, discussions, more surveys and follow-up discussion. It literally took us months to decide which words and phrases best captured the Cantiague experience for kids. After deciding on the words that best fit Cantiague (the students on the team really helped refine the list from their vantage point) we then shifted the conversation to what our vision statement should actually look like... will we generate that bulleted list? Maybe write it in a different way? Or go in a completely different direction and create a Wordle that would permanently be visible on our website. Although it was a great discussion, we had a tough time coming to a conclusion!

After a month of discussion on this topic, the team kept coming back to the power of our Cantiague Video Updates (check out the latest one here). The feeling was that a video might best capture the Cantiague experience and would allow us to actually show, with images, what the vision statement looks like in school. Well, thanks to the hard work of three team members - Katie, CaseyLisa and the rest of the Shared Decision Making Team - the Cantiague Vision Statement went from an idea to a video reality. Check it out and please leave a comment below letting us know what you think about our vision and ask yourself, What is your vision?    

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Passionate Learners: A Humble Review

After reading Pernille Ripp's book, Passionate Learners: Giving Our Classrooms Back To Our Students, there are three words that immediately jump to the forefront of my mind... passion, control and voice. Are those necessarily original words when it comes to books directed at educators? Probably not but what makes this book different is that the ideas of passion, control and voice are directed at both the educators and students in our classrooms today. Pernille stresses the importance of passion, control (not in the way most of you are probably thinking) and voice for every person in the classroom because these concepts should be central to the educational experience; these concepts should guide the educational experience; these concepts should inspire and empower both the learners and teachers in the room... and by the way, both the educators and students should be learners and teachers each day. From my vantage point, these are the themes and concepts that are central to this excellent book.

So, I have never written a book review before but I am going to give it my best shot. The book is well written and filled with voice - as I was reading it, I felt like I could hear Pernille talking to me. Her passion, conviction and voice permeate the book - it is clear to me this book comes from her heart and soul. The book is easy to read and structured in a way that includes the theory behind her thinking, tips on how things might look in the classroom and links to some amazing resources that would be useful to every educator! 

As I see it, the book is her take on what teaching is for her (her own manifesto of sorts)! Now let's be clear, Pernille's take on teaching is not necessarily what it should be or will be for everyone else but it is her "guide" to teaching; her vision of school; and her suggestions on how things might look in any given classroom. Fortunately, on many levels, her take on schooling and life in a classroom is somewhat unconventional and goes against what many of us learned during our education classes and ultimately, I think that is what I love most about this book. She pushes back on homework, offers a unique take on rewards and consequences and even tackles the Common Core standards through a different lens than most educators today and honestly, that is what I found so refreshing and inspiring about this book... a classroom handbook of sorts. 

Did I agree with everything in the book? No. For example, as a building principal, I do think about the teachers who send students to my office the most (Pernille suggests that principals don't keep tabs on that but I do in a very informal way) because once a student comes to my office as a consequence, the control has been shifted from the teacher to me and I don't think that is a great thing. The way I see it, from the moment a student is sent to the Principal's office for a consequence, the teacher has relinquished control and the relationship between that teacher and student will forever be different. Again, this is just my take on that idea. Additionally, Pernille points out the flaws with reward systems but the truth is, I have seen reward systems and behavior plans make a world of difference for some of our most involved students. There are students who benefit from a structured behavior and reward plan that reinforces the positive behavior they need to be successful and safe. Does every kid need that type of plan? No. Should we be "bribing" kids to do their "job" (aka - being a learner)? No. But does a black and white reward system work for certain children? Yes. Even though I did not necessarily agree with Pernille on these points, I love that she gave me a different way to look at them and consider them - she has helped broaden my lens!

Now, back to the three words that jumped into my mind when I was done reading the book... passion, control and voice! You see, each person in the classroom needs a dose of all three of these things to be successful. Everyone should have an opportunity to follow their passions - especially the students! Everyone should share control of the learning process as it unfolds in the classroom - especially the students! Everyone should have voice in the way teaching and learning looks in the classroom - especially the students! Although earlier I qualified this book as a "handbook" of sorts for educators, the focus is really on the students (hence the title). The focus is on creating a truly student-centered classroom where students are empowered to use their voice to take control of the learning and pursue their passions. 

We need to see students as partners in the teaching and learning processes - not just receivers of information. We need to learn from our students and let them direct us at times. We need to invest in genuine relationships with our kids - our children need to feel valued, respected and appreciated. Our children need to be reminded that making mistakes is often critical to learning and is a positive thing. Our children need to know that everyone might show what they know and understand in a different way and that is acceptable - one size does NOT fit all. Our children need to know that school is a partnership and that the classroom is their space to explore, learn and grow.... to take risks and push their thinking... to fail on the journey to success... to laugh, talk and engage on their terms. Our children and educators need to remember that our classrooms belong to our students and we are there to support, encourage and empower them because only then will we be able to give our classrooms back to our kids! 

Thank you Pernille for sharing your book with me... you have changed my thinking and helped make me a better educator and leader. With that in mind, I strongly suggest that every educator read this book whether they agree or not because ultimately, we are all motivated by doing what is in the best interest of children, right?    

Thursday, May 8, 2014

From The Mouths of Babes

I recently had the pleasure of spending a quiet evening with my son Paul. We did some homework, had dinner and chatted for a while. During one of our conversations in the early part of the night Paul paused while reading and said, "Dad, school could be so much better if only a few things were different but I don't think it really matters because no one cares what kids have to say about school. We are just supposed to listen!"

Needless to say, I was both intrigued and horrified by Paul's comment. My initial question was one of genuine interest... how can we make school better? Please tell me Paul! I was excited and interested. Within moments though, I was consumed by sadness and concern because I couldn't help but think that all our children may feel like their voices are meaningless within the school experience. 

Determined to stay focused on the positive, I asked Paul to explain to me what, from his perspective, would make school a better place for all kids and here is what Paul came up with...

  • Eliminate homework or at least keep it to a minimum each night. Kids work hard in school all day so when they get home, they need time to play, relax, be with their families and even just think about their day and reflect on what happened! Kids should not be doing hours of homework, especially if no on actually checks it at school. If kids are expected to spend their time outside of school doing homework, then teachers should check it. If homework is a must, then don't give too much of it - that just stresses everyone out at home!

  • Give kids more time to work together in school. School work and learning is always so much better when we get to work in partnerships or small groups. I love working with a partner because it makes learning more fun and gives me a space to share my ideas. Also, when I work with a partner, I never feel embarrassed to ask a question about what we are doing, especially if I am confused.

  • Let me do research about the things that I am most interested in! For example, I am really interested in Marvel and DC characters (especially the villains) so maybe I could research their histories and do a presentation using some form of technology or I could create my own comic book. Whatever the topic, I think us kids can figure out a way to connect it back to the different subjects in school. 

  • I had no interest in studying the Sugar Act for social studies but it was assigned to me so I had no choice. This is often a problem for us kids because no one really asks us what we want to do and why we want to do it. Things could be so much better if schools and teachers let students have a choice in some of the things they have to learn about in school! Who doesn't like to have choices? 

  • School needs to be fun because when we are having fun and laughing together we feel better about ourselves and we could do anything. For example, let me bring my iTouch to school to help me learn - not only will that be fun for me but it will also help me learn. I think this is the most important one - school needs to be fun for everyone!

As I listened to Paul and took notes on what he shared, I found myself shaking my head along in agreement. You see, as a doctoral student, I saw ways that my school experience could be improved by implementing some of Paul's suggestions. I also started to think about myself as the Lead Learner of Cantiague Elementary - how could Paul's suggestions help us at Cantiague? I am not quite sure of the answers but one thing I am certain of is that I want our children, starting with Paul, to always feel like their voices are heard and valued - that, in itself, can make school a better place. So, moving forward, don't forget to hear the things emanating from the mouths of babes because the suggestions our kids make can most definitely improve the school experience for everyone!