Listen to Their Voices

Year 38 has begun.  A friend at church asked if it would be different.  Replied that it certainly would be, just not yet sure how.  After all, I work in a Middle School.  As with the previous 37, I spent the summer re-charging, new learning, and getting ready for the fall.  For purposes of attribution, thanks to a friend and colleage, Dr. Gary Peer, for again sharing his thoughts on What Every Kid Needs, “Love in the Classroom,” a speech by Leo Buscaglia from 1971, the Apple Ad “Here’s to the Crazy Ones,” and “Here’s to the Kids Who are Different,” author unknown, but hanging in my office, a gift from a teacher on my staff from 1987-1992.

I work with primarily 5th and 6th graders, their teachers and their parents.  While I will be the “new” assistant principal to approximately 300 entering 5th graders whom I haven’t met yet, I have no doubt that the word on the street is already out about what kind of person I am.  After all, more PTA meetings happen at ball games and soccer practices than ever happen within the four walls of a school building.  Now the parents and kids get to find out if perception is reality.

Recharged this summer reading a couple of series.  One is the Hack Learning series, “Hacking Education,” “Hacking Assessment,” and “Hacking the Common Core,” incredibly practical tools that can be share with and used by teachers on Day 1.  Second series is the Question Behind the Question series by John Miller, “The Question Behind the Question” and “Flipping the Switch.”  These books speak to personal accountability, a valuable lesson we all need to internalize and pass along in order to  avoid becoming professional victims.  Summer reading was a fine journey into the “other world” that I am often rightly accused of living in by many of the colleagues in my district.  It is a world filled with possibilities, powered by dreams of Life As It Should Be, not by Life As It Is, working from the Paradigm of the Possible rather than the Paradigm of the Present.

But the most powerful moment of the summer was from my son who introduced me to  the work of Spoken Word artist Suli Breaks.  Each year, I identify a personal theme, something that provides direction and focus for my work.  The job description certainly defines what I will be doing, the theme describes why I am doing it.  The theme for this year is Listen to their Voices.  We often pay lip service to relevance, teaching kids to perform jobs that haven’t been created yet, etc.  What our students need to know and be able to do is constantly changing, as it always has.  What has remained constant is the necessity of their ability to learn.  Our science teachers have taught us about matter and anti-matter, our students are teaching us about Does It Matter.  Suli Breaks addressed it eloquently.  You may want to turn on the closed captioning if you have difficulty following his accent, he is from the UK.  “I Will Not Let an Exam Result Determine My Fate.”

The approximately five regular readers of these ramblings know that I believe school should be about learning rather than teaching.  This applies to both adults and adolescents.  So my Words of Wisdom to teachers new to the profession this year are short, sweet, and simple: ” Listen to your elders advice, not because they are always right, but because they have more experiences of being wrong.”  My Words of Wisdom to all of us is in the form of a question/challenge:  “If students weren’t required to come to your classroom/school, would they?”  What happens in your classroom, everyday, that makes students want to be there.

I have been honored to work in some very high performing schools and districts during my 37 years.  Even got to change a paradigm once or twice.  In those schools and districts, we identified What Every Kid Needs.  We accepted the responsibility to create the foundations of learning.  These foundations aren’t evaluated by SBAC, PAARC, ACT, SAT, etc, and they typically don’t show up on a school report card or dashboard.

Too much of what we offer are legacies of a time that no longer exists.  4 units of English, 3 units of math, 2 units of science and social studies, filled out with electives, are little more than an attempt to be all things to all kids.  The Shopping Mall high school of 1985 has become a strip mall, or an open-air retail and entertainment district.  Store fronts are full, but the offerings are limited and in many cases, outdated.

One of the precepts of outstanding customer service is to provide what the customer needs, not necessarily what the customer wants.  So What Does Every Kid Need?

  1. Warmth and Caring:  Every child needs to live and learn in a warm and caring environment, home and school.  Such environments are comprised of parents and teachers capable of being affectionate toward children, showing them they are recognized, appreciated and loved, regardless of their particular uniqueness.
  2. Encouragement: Every child needs to grow up in homes and schools that are encouraging environments vs. discouraging.  Encouragement to try new and different things, to not give up, to learn from mistakes, to explore curiosities, to set goals, to be one who consistently either sees the glass as half full or finds a shorter glass.
  3. Responsible Choosing:  Every child needs to grow up in homes and schools that provide the child opportunities to make choices and be responsible for their choices.  Absent those opportunities, one fails to acquire a sense of personal responsibility for their own decisions, choices and actions.  Of the five, this one may be the most powerful of all, because if amply provided children, they will learn the invaluable truth of personal responsibility for the choices we make in life.
  4. High, Positive Expectations:  Self-fulfilling prophecy here, my behavior tends to reflect the expectations of myself and what I perceive others expect of me.  Pygmalion in the Classroom is a must read.  Our children tend to behave and perform in the direction of what they believe, perceive, or “know” to be our expectations of them.
  5. Firm and Just Discipline:  We must all understand the importance of children experiencing consequences for engaging in inappropriate or undesired behavior.  Consistent, fair and reasonable consequences for both, the violation of known or pubic home/class rules, or unpredicted, spontaneous behavior of an inappropriate type affecting others must be consistently and fairly met with consequences.  The helicopters must land.

What do we need to remove in order to  make these a part of our daily school and home life?

  1. Tradition.  According to Willard Daggett and others, the math sequence was designed by the math department because it represents the courses needed to become a math teacher.  The English department followed the same template.  Suppliers, not consumers, developed the curriculum.  It is no longer 1893, can we let the work of the Committee of Ten fade into the sunset?
  2. Dependence on Time.  The National Education Commission on Time and Learning released Prisoners of Time in 1994.  It’s findings are as true today as they were then.  It’s should be about learning, not time spent.  To quote from the report, “If experience, research, and common sense teach nothing else, they confirm the truism that people learn at different rates, and in different ways with different subjects.  But we have put the cart before the horse:  our schools and the people involved with them – students, parents, teachers, administrators, and staff – are captives of clock and calendar.  The boundaries of student growth are defined by schedules for bells, buses, and vacations instead of standards for students and learning.”

Not possible, say many, to successfully challenge the status quo.  We found otherwise when we formed the Virtual High School Global Consortium.  From our good friends at Apple”

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Appreciate the past.  Utilize the present, and don’t be afraid to create the future.

As for me, I will Listen to Their Voices;

the kids who are different, the ones who don’t always get A’s.  The kids who have ears twice the size of their peers, and noses that go on for days.  The kids who are different, the ones they call lazy and dumb.  The kids who aren’t cute, and don’t give a hoot, who dance to a different drum.  The kids who are different, the ones with a mischievous streak.  For when they have grown, as history has shown, it’s their differences that make them unique.

And so it goes, for the 38th time…