Reflection While on Morning Duty

I work at a Middle School near Bozeman, Montana. There is an elementary school across the football field from us, we share a common bus lane to load and unload students every day.

Needless to say, this time of year, most readers of this tripe would consider our weather to be quite cold, and we have some rather large piles of snow along the field fence as we have cleared the snow from the bus lane.

The week started off with a bang this morning as I watched a kindergarten student get off the bus and walk toward the elementary school. He was fully bundled in his snow clothes, and thank goodness he also had a full backpack. Had a bit of trouble getting his feet under him as he got off the bus, slipped and fell a couple of times before he found his land legs, and the bus aide had to help him get back up.

Why a kindergarten student has a backpack that weighs about half as much as he does is another story for another day.

Enjoyed watching him walk toward his building. He was truly on a mountain expedition as he successfully, and without falling, climbed every large pile of snow he encountered. I am sure that in his mind, he conquered Mt. Everest and every other mountain he has seen in his brief life. His imagination had to be working in overdrive!

I only hope that when he walked into his classroom, his teacher tapped into it, and as I am writing this, I hope his imagination is still in Warp Factor 3, and he isn’t filling in the blanks on the latest worksheet that is claiming to teach him to read.

And so it goes…


There was a disruption in the Force yesterday. A retired educator, Mr. David Beaman, passed away. Mr. Beaman was one of my junior high math teachers, and he moved with us to the high school, so I was able to take a couple of math classes under him while there.

He must have done well, I had a high enough math score on my ACT that I didn’t have to take any math as an undergraduate.

Granted, a lot of years have passed since I left high school. And I’m sure that somewhere among the intervening years, I applied at least some of the things that Mr. Beaman taught me in his math classes.

But like all fantastic teachers, I remember much more about his empathy, his willingness to do whatever it took to connect with us on a personal level than I do about algebra or geometry.

I was blessed to have a group of teachers through junior high, (we hadn’t invented middle school in the late 1960’s), who taught students, not subjects. He was one. I can’t remember wanting to go into education as a career when I was that age, just know that many of us enjoyed their classes, learned a lot, and certainly appreciated their guidance on our journey through adolescence.

As a college music education major, and later as a teacher, I had the opportunity to visit with that group of teachers and pick their brains for all they could share with a newly minted educator who understood that college preparation programs, then as now, leave a lot to be desired.

To my knowledge, only one of that group of my former teachers is still living, all have been retired for a long time. But the magic of social media allows us to continue to ask and learn.

Godspeed, and thanks, Mr. Beaman, Mr. Brown, Mr. Deyoe, Mr. Kincaid, Mr.Gardner, Mr. Ballard, Mr. Fowler…a few of us are doing our best to carry your legacies. Like to think that you would be proud of us.

Unity and Bubbles

Many of  us live in bubbles of our own making. We share the same opinions, breathe the same air. Groupthink rules the day in many organizations, dissent is neither sought nor welcomed. Too often, people do not want to hear our thoughts, they want to hear their thoughts expressed in our voices.

One of the early promises of the Internet, and lately social media, was that we could choose from a virtual buffet of thoughts and ideas from a broad spectrum of sources.

We live in a world filled with a diversity of ideas that can challenge our personal beliefs and biases. We are no longer dependent on the filters of the editors and managing producers of the programs which provide our news. We are no longer the captive masses, whose thoughts and opinions are shaped by the opinions of others who think they know what we want to see and hear. We are now in control, able to challenge ourselves by finding what we want to stay informed.

Instead, our bubbles have seemed to turn into echo chambers, increasing in volume but narrowing in scope what we choose to see and hear. We often use our empowerment only to ratify and reinforce the ideas we already hold. Not to admit the possibility that we could be “wrong,” not to seek the thoughts and opinions which challenge ours, and use that discourse to grow intellectually.

We merely reinforce what we already “know” to be true by finding and following only those who share our beliefs, and use the algorithms of social media to “like” only those who happen to be like us.

Discourse has been replaced with sound bites of 140 characters, or “we only have a few seconds left until we have to take a break.” If I disagree with you, it is easier to unfriend or unfollow you than to discuss our differences.

Interesting choice of words.  Unfriend. Unfollow.

But if I agree with you, or you with me, we will retweet and share so that everyone in our networks see how smart we are because others agree with us. The more likes, shares, and retweets, the smarter we are and the more correct our position. If the post trends, or goes viral, it should be immediately added to Scripture.

The topic is Unity. Possibly, and hopefully, not achievable. If we were all like me, the world would truly be a very boring place, and we wouldn’t learn much beyond what we already know.

But while the goal remains unity, the challenge is respect. Respect both the people and their ideas that may be somewhat different than ours. Not to judge the ideas by the opinions we have of the people expressing them. Rather, engage them in conversation and reflection to see what motivates them to see things differently from us.

If the entire choir is singing the same melody, it is certainly nice to listen to. But additional voices adding counterpoint make it memorable.

To which I shout, Hallelujah!


Reflections on Grades, Mastery, and What Really Matters

Prior to moving to the Dark Side of Educational Administration, I was a band and orchestra director, teaching kids in grades 5-12 some of what the critical skills of music and the arts can do to enhance their lives. Inherent in a performance-based class is the concept of the outcomes of our work with students being publicly exhibited, and that same public making judgements about our abilities as teachers based on the performances of our students.

We have a special name for that concept, we call it “Friday Night.” About every other Friday, our students perform in stadiums and gymnasiums filled with fans at sporting events. Few in the audience know or care how many band kids are either cheerleading or playing in the game. But all can tell if the band sounds good or not.

And we realize that our performance is only as good as the worst player, and the worst player is playing. We have to make sure that every player can perform at a mastery level.

A discussion of other performances throughout the year that are not related to ball games, where we actually demonstrate performance to adopted Fine Arts standards, not performances intended to entertain/inspire, and how fair it is to judge us on things not directly tied to our performance standards, is for another day. Suffice to say that I have yet to see “score well on the standardized test” appear in any grade or subject level content standards documents, nor to does “play well at the ball games” appear in the latest adopted music standards.  But it is a fact of life for all teachers.

As a staff developer during the adoption/onset of No Child Left Untested, I could certainly empathize with  English/Language Arts and Math teachers who were finding themselves under that same microscope for the first time. I would remind them that our goal was increasing student learning, measured in multiple ways. Our focus was not on the scoreboard, but shooting at the rim, if you will. Like all excellent coaches, if they emphasized the processes of and skills of learning rather than explicitly teaching to the test, the test scores would take care of themselves. Data proved us to be correct.

My current district, like many others, is having discussions about transitioning to a standards-based report card. We are not yet sure of what it will look like or what the performance level descriptors will be, but I’m fairly certain that we will agree on something resembling “Below Proficient,” “Proficient,” and “Advanced.” Then the process of educating parents and the public will begin. Is Below Proficient the same as a D or F, is Proficient the same as a B or C, is Advanced the same as an A?

SIDEBAR – How we will follow the lead of other districts to ensure that standards-based teaching and standards-based learning will be in congruence with standards-based reporting is a topic for another day. If all that changes is the report card, much time will have been wasted. END SIDEBAR

In my world, the videos below capture the conversation magnificently. Two different directors, two different ensembles, but both make the point of what it really represents to earn an A, and that the characteristics of mastery go well beyond the letter grade.

Short version here.

Long version here.

In previous posts, I have already touched on the fallacy of teaching to the average, but in case you missed it, the video by Dr. Todd Rose is here.

I, and many others, have voiced our concerns with the education pendulum swinging back to homogeneous and leveled reading and math groups under the banner of RTI. Are we spending so much time and focus working on the mechanics of reading that we are losing the innate joys of reading? Where is the emphasis on the non-cognitive aspects? The emotion? The imagination? The love? The passion? The Why Should I Read?

The purpose of the performance is to connect with the audience on multiple levels. To transcend the mechanics of playing. The purpose of school should be to connect with learning on multiple levels, not to show up and earn a grade, or achieve a particular level on a report card.

The conductors of these bands explain it much better than I. The mechanics of playing; the right notes, correct rhythms and tempos are at the bottom of the staircase, not the goal to be attained at the top of the stairs.

As both ensembles illustrate, Proficient, or getting an A, isn’t good enough when Mastery is both the expectation and the desired result.

Hopefully our performance level descriptors will move beyond just the mechanics at each level. While paint-by-number pictures are kind of nice to look at, there isn’t much of a future for an artist who is limited to that medium.

And so it goes…

Out of the Box – Part 2

The topic is to discuss a time when we pushed against the boundaries and challenged the system. In my post last month, I talked about lessons learned. Today, I want to share why.

I am not going to discuss Innovative Uses of “Stuff” (technology,) bringing in iPads or Chromebooks will not, by itself, change much of anything if we are only using new things to continue working in the present model.  Improvement is also not a topic today. Tweaking existing practice (standards based grade cards, block scheduling) will not have significant impact on student learning. Not just my opinion, Alan November has been preaching this sermon for over 20 years.

Innovation must address the fundamentals of our system, and it must address pedagogy.  Innovation is changing how people think, their attitudes, and ultimately, their behavior.  Innovation changes paradigms, it does not refine them.

Too many of us are comfortable in our skins, our classrooms haven’t changed much since our first day of teaching. A couple of video links below will reinforce this point. Change is uncomfortable. We are good, and good is the enemy of great. The teacher down the hall needs some serious professional development, the district down the road could certainly do better for their kids. But we are doing just fine in my classroom, and in my district.

In the opening of his book The Eden Conspiracy, Dr. Joe Harless shares this quote from William Bennett, taken from his book Our Children, Our County, “If the current reform movement is to succeed, it must rest on the conviction that the public schools belong to the public, not the experts, or social scientists or professionals, or the educational establishment.”

While I disagreed with many of the positions advocated by Mr. Bennett during his term as Secretary of Education, this is not one of them. The A Nation At Risk report was released during his tenure in 1983, it remains a seminal work in my profession.  It was followed in 1994 by Prisoners of Time, another seminal work filled with good intentions, but minimal impact on the profession.

One of the lessons learned, under the umbrella of Rules for the Revolution, is that innovation never initiates within a system. The catalyst occurs either on the edges of the system, or outside it.

Many of us realized several years ago that our current system of public education was not adequately meeting the changing expectations placed on our schools by society, or the needs of our students to function successfully in that society when they become our age.

I was corrupted by reading the following subversive literature early on as we worked to change the system for our students:

If It Ain’t Broke…Break It – Robert Kriegel and Louis Patten; Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers – Robert Kriegel and David Brendt; Expect the Unexpected or You Won’t Find It – Roger von Oech; A Whack on the Side of the Head – Roger von Oech; and The Macintosh Way – Guy Kawasaki.

They were followed by Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson; and The Eden Conspiracy by Dr. Joe Harless.  Dr. Harless’ book was the model for the creation of the Central Educational Center in Newnan, Georgia, a truly outstanding school. One of the honors of my career has been working with, and earning the respect of that staff.

Dr. Harless, like the rest of the authors of these books are not from the mainstream of public education in America.  They personify my belief that changes occur from outside the system.  With all due respect to ASCD, NASEP, NASSP, et al, you cannot order these books from them. But they are worth the investment on Amazon…

Wired magazine recently posted this article, again.  “American Schools are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist”

American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist

We recently were taken to court for continuing to ignore the obvious:

Sir Ken Robinson could have been called as an expert witness:

Yet we persist in teaching to the average student, when we know that the average student does not exist:

Sidebar, Todd is keynoting the Blended and Online Learning Symposium, hosted by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning in San Antonio on October 26. End of sidebar.

While I respect the work of those who research schools and my profession, I also understand that they are not in schools and classrooms on a daily basis.  They blow in, blow off, and blow out. While they have a wonderful grasp of strategies and techniques, test scores, the latest fads and all the jargon and acronyms, they do not have an understanding of our kids; the challenges and opportunities they face every day. Nor do they get to work with our parents, our communities, or the dynamics of our schools.  In other words, they will not be there tomorrow.

The only people who fully understand what is happening in our schools are the kids. As teachers, we know what happens to our kids in our classroom. But too often, we don’t know what our kids brought to school with them, what happened in the classroom before ours, what will happen in the next classroom, and what is waiting for them at home.

I am an Assistant Principal at a middle school. Every day, my world revolves mostly around the lives and loves of about 600 fifth and sixth graders, out of a total population of about 1,100 kids. I am trusted every day with other people’s kids. They are not intensive, strategic, benchmark, nearing proficient, proficient, or advanced. They are the best kids that Mommas have to send me.They are the cutest and handsomest grandkids any grandparent has. And I must earn their respect, every day.

I will be there for them tomorrow, doing my best to think in the future while acting in the present.

Theodore Roosevelt inspired my feelings about my job, and my role in the lives of our students.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Machievelli predicted our struggles at reform very accurately when he presumably said   “Whoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”

He followed this with, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

With all due respect to Mr. Bennett, public schools belong to the public, as custodians of the public trust for generations of students yet to come.

I will listen to them.

The Power of Presence

Topic of the week is to write about a time when we have been contacted by a former student, and reflect on the impact we make on people’s lives.

I have former students who are now in their 50’s, and have been honored as many of them have contacted me through the years to share what they learned in my classes that had nothing to do with band or orchestra.  And many of those conversations happened before the Age of Social Media. I won’t go into those here, my stories are no different than anyone else’s stories, and too often we take for granted the impact we make on our students and colleagues.

As a staff developer for many years, I would make this point when we shared the Art and Science of Teaching in our conversation about the Best Teacher You Ever Had.  I have written about it here.

So now the Essential Question.  What do you want your students to remember about you after they have forgotten everything that you have taught them?

After all is said and done, teaching is about service.  As a teacher, it is all about you. It isn’t about the content, the lesson plan, the activities, the classroom decorations.  It’s about YOU!

The sacrifices we all make, the nights spent grading papers, planning and creating activities, attending evening programs, even if we only stay long enough to be seen by the kids, tossing and turning at 2am worrying about a student, time missed with spouses and children, it’s all about service.

Who served us?  How?  And how are we paying it forward?

There is a framed document hanging by my desk, in my line of sight as I visit with students and parents.

“Today I placed several people in front of you…Did you inspire, teach, motivate, hug, share a smile, share a warm thought, buy their lunch, show them your love, show compassion or put yourself in their position? Or…did you just turn away and shrink back into yourself? Not quite what I had in mind…But I know you’ll get better at it. I’m sending some more your way tomorrow.   God”

And so it goes…


Out of the Box

The topic for this week with the #CompelledTribe is to write about pushing boundaries. I am choosing to post about a project our district initiated in Fall, 1993.  At that time, I was the Superintendent of the Center, Colorado school district.  Center is located, appropriately, in the center of the San Luis Valley of south central Colorado. The local economy is totally agriculturally based.  In 1993, our demographics included a free/reduced lunch rate of 95%. As part of a consent decree from a lawsuit, every student new to the district had to complete a home language assessment. Review of results indicated that approximately 15% of new students in a given year did not speak any language fluently enough to consider it a home language.  Needless to say, we enjoyed some significant opportunities to make a difference.

Using accreditation guidelines in place at that time, the district was not performing at a high level. We had tried many of the “traditional” fixes with limited success. It was time for something more significant. We were approached by an organization called the Center for the New West to partner with them on what we called the Student Centered School Project. Two years later, our district was the highest performing district in Colorado based on the same guidelines, when compared to similar districts. The rest is history.

What follows is taken primarily from a proposal document created in October, 1993, and an unpublished paper I was asked to write by colleague Superintendents in Colorado along the subject of “What in the Wide, Wide World of Sports Were You Thinking When You Dreamed This Up.”  It came to be known as the Rules for the Revolutionaries. Based on our work, the district was invited to join 25 other districts from around the United States to form the Virtual High School Global Consortium in 1994. The consortium shared a 5 year grant from the US Department of Education to create a national consortium of schools that expands members’ curricular offerings through a wide range of innovative network-based courses that support reform. After a couple of years of inventing stuff we now take for granted in online classes, the consortium went live to the world in 1996 with the creation of the virtual school model now used by all state level virtual programs. While the concept may not sound too exciting today, it was pretty new, exciting and different in 1993. It was kind of fun to be in a district in rural Colorado and find the district profiled  in the New York Times, USA Today, The Educational Forum of Kappa Delta Pi, and Wired. The bureaucracy wasn’t really ready for it.

We considered the Project to be somewhat revolutionary.  The revolution was all about innovation and creating systems and processes that did not exist at the time, not just tweaking what was already there. So here is a summary of the Project, and lessons learned. For what it’s worth…

“The Student Centered School is designed to “break the mold” in education by:  (1) Demonstrating that students can learn best when self-directed and given access to multi-media information and learning tools; (2)  Allowing parents to enroll their children in a learning program without geographic boundaries, and organized to best fit their child’s learning style, interests, and ability to be a produces of their own, and other children’s learning materials; (3)  Showing that teachers can be re-trained to be multi-discipline, multi-age level learning coaches certified as such through our alternative certification program.”  Our Board of Education had passed a Resolution of Support stating in part that we would “shift the Structure from student as a recipient of education – to student as self-directed, independent, lifelong learner; from student as the consumer of educational materials – to student as producer of educational materials; from student as recipient of teaching services – to student as provider of teaching services; from the student as a customer of school services – to student as the owner of the educational system and facilities while in attendance.”

Dealing with the Bureaucracy

  1. Have the support of your staff and community, but understanding that if you wait until “everybody is on board,” it will never happen.  There is a reason why some are called Early Adopters and others are called Later Adapters. As we moved up the regulatory chain from community to the state Department of Education, state Board of Education and state Legislature, asking questions they were not prepared to answer, it was nice to have the local support as part of our network.
  2. Ask forgiveness, not permission.  When bureaucracy and policies get in the way, do the right thing and ask permission later.
  3. Placate the people you can’t avoid and avoid the people you can’t placate. We were fortunate to have a champion for our program working for the Colorado Department of Education.  He was a tremendous asset in navigating the politics of the  bureaucracy.
  4. Implement before anyone changes their mind, or you get caught. The best path is to do what’s right before anyone catches you.  Often, you don’t need to  ignore or avoid people, just take their instructions and implement them before they expected you to.
  5. Do what is right for the customer and everything else will fall into place. Most districts concentrate on test scores and dropout rates, not the customer.  That’s shooting at the scoreboard and not the rim. If you concentrate on meeting the needs of the customer, the test scores will follow.
  6. Go with your gut. Weigh the risks, but don’t be afraid to take a shot. In most cases, you won’t have all the information you need, and the target is moving, anyway. A wrong answer at least provides data and helps you make better decisions in the future.  Waiting, or doing nothing at all, provides nothing.
  7. Burn, don’t bleed to death. Doing the right thing and doing things right does not guarantee survival.  The rules of the revolution say to make your best effort, put everything on the line, and swing for the fence.  Even when you fail, you will do it with a sense of style and the knowledge that you gave it your best.
  8. As a leader, have a strong sense of security.  There will be a long list of people who will try to grind you down. Machiavelli was spot on when he said, “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system.  For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old system and merely lukewarm defenders who would gain by the new one.”
  9. Build your network. Realize that you are not walking down the path of discovery alone.  Find the others who can both support you, both personally and professionally.  We partnered with some very brilliant people, both with the Center for the New West initially, and later with the other districts in the Consortium.

My undergraduate background was in music, I still consider myself a recovering trumpet player. During one of the sleepless nights I caused myself, I watched an old musical, “The Man of LaMancha.” In it, Don Quixote gave a speech called “Life As It Is.” I paraphrased it:

“I’ve worked in education for nearly 40 years, and I’ve seen Life As It Is. Pain, misery, cruelty beyond belief. I’ve heard the voices of God’s noblest creatures, His children. I’ve been a student, teacher and administrator. I’ve seen colleagues at each level drop out, walk away, or die more slowly by putting in their time. I’ve held them as they left. These were people who saw Life As It Is. They left despairingly, no commencement speeches, no retirement farewells. Only their eyes filled with confusion, questioning why. I do not think they were asking why they were leaving, but why they had ever come in the first place. What we do at times seems lunatic. But who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams, this may be madness. To seek treasure where there has only been poverty may be madness. To nurture hope where there has only been despair and resignation may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness. But maddest of all is to accept life as it is, and not as it should be.”

I hope I have one more fight left in me before I leave my keys behind and call it a career. Looking for another playground, and some new people to play with.

And so it goes…