Wednesday, September 5, 2018

September 5: The Watercooler Effect

"Webster's dictionary defines wedding as: the fusing of two metals with a hot torch"
Michael Scott, Regional Manager, Dunder Mifflin

Whenever one hangs out anywhere for a period of time, their learning begins to be affected by the actual surroundings themselves. The "water cooler effect" takes hold. This occurs in business offices, classrooms, locker rooms, church halls, online forums, and even local joints like bakeries or barbershops. The effect is called groupthink.

Groupthink is the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages  change, creativity, or individual responsibility associated with issues. In terms of psychology, it can be either a help or a hindrance to one's mindset, or to a group or team. In terms of communications, it can lead to generalizations or ultimatums, labels, all bad ideas. In a marriage, it can be wonderful.

Graham's local townships and villages have their water coolers, too. The effect of the groupthink in these communities- all part of Graham's district- is a historic cultural issue, one of the rarest and most concerning examples of low local tax support for schools, and failed attempts at progress as a school community for decades in terms of operating funds. The marriage between school and community  seems to be misunderstood here. In any strong marriage, it takes two to tango, listen, show respect, and support one another.

In 24 years as an educator, I've been told how to do things over and over again. I've listened. In fact, I have listened closely with an open mind to more opinions about how to fund schools from people outside of our schools than I have ever heard comments about instruction or pedagogy. And I've watched. I've watched closely as parents, politicians, the media, and entire communities disconnected from their local public schools are judging us over and over again. And I watch as the competition all around us is ignored as public education is attacked and shrinking schools all around Ohio suffer.
And I reach out, and will continue to work to forge a better marriage here between our schools and community, because its just that important. There's no time to stand around the water cooler. We are in a race every day to improve lives here.

And yet, the barber chair quarterbacks and bakery counter inspectors seem to have schooling all figured out. I don't pretend to be a barber or baker. That's easy to do when you don't take individual responsibility for progress or change for others. It's easy to analyze when accountability doesn't fall to you as a leader. It's easy to scrutinize when you take for granted the investments made by others for you in the past. It's easy when you forget that your part of the community is dependent upon all the others for success.

It's easy to forget who helped you when you were a child, a student...

It's easy drinking from the water cooler.       

Thursday, August 2, 2018

August 7: The Harvest

"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant"
Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) is one of my favorite Scottish authors. Treasure Island was one of those novels I connected with early on. But his writing goes far and wide beyond swashbuckling tales to include poetry, political essays, and short stories set in amazing locations around the globe. But did you know Stevenson dealt with personal rejection and tension within his family for years because of their expectations that he succeed to become a lawyer, just like his father before him? While Stevenson had the skills and did indeed pass the bar, it wasn't his passion.

Too often we forget, regardless of the era, time, or place, that so much of what is planned and structured for children in society wasn't designed for them to explore their individual passions, but with other expectations in mind. We tend to focus so much on uniform outcomes and cohort data and group measures of success defined by adults that we unintentionally plant the wrong seeds for the future, thinking it will increase the yield we expect. Succession plans imposed upon others rarely succeed. Public education has suffered for decades because of this narrow view of schooling. Consumerism in our field, and competition from other educational entities prove it. 

The reality is, you reap what you sow. Personalization of education for each child is easier said than done. However, that's because adults make it so. We haven't truly made the shifts necessary to do the work and support learners in this way, even though the concepts are nothing new, and have been plaguing education for hundreds of years. Many adults won't try it for themselves, out of fear. At Graham, we are changing that.

Dave Burgess is one of my favorite educators. His Teach Like a Pirate book resonates. We need to champion those who strike out from the pack, set sail for innovation, and are unabashedly fearless about change in education. We need to celebrate these modern pirates.

The focus on planting seeds of hope through passion projects and exploratory paths have to become the culture for the harvest to truly be as bountiful as we all wish. It's as important educationally for a child to learn what they don't want to focus on, or become, as it is to choose their own path.   

I asked my principals recently if they would rather lead a building that resembled a marching band, an orchestra, or a jazz band. I got no wrong answers, and three different ones. The reality is, leading in education today is about understanding that there can be uniformity with specialization; passion with accountability; group work and individualism all in one. Programs at Graham like The Leader in Me will help us to just that.

There is no doubt that treasures can be found in every child. Why do we waste so much time with conformity? Yes, foundational literacy skills and math skills will always have a place and be required learning, but no one has to become an AP student, or a quarterback, or a STEM star to become something special. What they need to become is their own champion and life leader. In this way, the harvest we all wish for can truly be realized. Who wants any child to be marooned on an island?   

Friday, July 13, 2018

July 13: Bridge Out

"In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future"
-Alex Haley

What do you do when the bridge is out?

A bridge helps one do many things. It saves you time getting from point A to point B with the most efficient route. It can help you reach a destination. It can help you escape to somewhere new. It can help you traverse an unsafe environment. It can provide protection from outside elements. It can frame a scene of beauty. It can be a symbol of progress and help set your location, or be a compass point for others. It can help you rise above. 

When building a bridge, there must be a vision of getting somewhere, or receiving something from the project. When John Roebling worked on the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, for years the vision led to countless trials and failures, setbacks, even death. Ultimately, new methods led to the eventual completion of the hybrid cable-style suspension bridge, a unique masterpiece. Few saw the vision through. Roebling never wavered. Its been there ever since, symbolic of the era it ushered in for New York City, the United States, and the world as the Industrial Revolution reshaped the globe.

If the builders of a bridge don't think the proposition is win-win, they may not take the time to synergize their efforts, to learn from one another, or value the collective strength of a team to create better solutions to the problems faced on either side. Joining together is a feat. Bricks and mortar can build a bridge. Words can build a bridge. Children are a bridge.

Where I live and work as Superintendent of Graham in St. Paris, Ohio, the main bridge is out - literally. I've heard more people complain about that bridge than anything else since I moved here a few years ago. "What an inconvenience"; "this is a complete waste of my time"; "I can't believe this repair could take so long or cost so much"; "the detours are way too long." Who truly wants to take a detour? 

When the bridge is out, things tend to come into focus. That's when the value of that route you came to take for granted, forget was even there, causes a whole new- or old- set of problems to rise up to meet the rubber where it hits the road. You can't always see obstacles clearly when you don't have a vantage point from a bridge; you just go through the motions. The route you take becomes much less efficient, much more time consuming- it also costs a lot more. The inevitable complaints and wasted resources lead to a climate change for those on the detours of life.

Graham Local Schools has a bridge out- the financial bridge to our childrens' futures we have been discussing for the past two years. Now fewer buses, less employees, and fewer Falcons can traverse their futures together because our bridge is out. More children are waiting on one side now, hoping adults can see their way to a winning proposition for all in the Fall. This bridge has affected all of us. No one gets where they need to go without this bridge. In the end, the bridge itself is the thing. Why take a detour?

Friday, June 8, 2018

June 8: Into the Looking Glass

“Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I just completed another "wonder-full" year at Graham Local Schools. This past year, I've been exposed to so many wonders in learning: 8th Grade Ted Talks; FIRST Lego league elementary school team; Global Surveying projects; Energy Team girls; Lean Six Sigma Yellowbelt cohorts at GHS.

Things aren't always as we imagine them. We aren't always aware of our surroundings. What we perceive isn't how everyone else sees their world. These are the lessons I learned as a boy reading Alice in Wonderland. Never, ever would I have thought these would be the types of things I would see in schools back in 1990 when I graduated high school and decided to become an educator. I imagined advances in technology and curriculum and opportunities, but I never had a clue about how learning would change; how knowledge collection and experiential learning would transform my definition of "school".

Why would I? I had been brought up in the same style, placed on the same conveyor belt, and produced from the same factory-style school box as my parents, and their parents, and on and on down the rabbit hole...

Alice grew up. So have I. The old looking glass provides a different perspective now.

The thing about learning is that nothing is impossible, it might just take a while. Back in 1990, I was still trying to process the fall of the Berlin Wall - something I never expected to see occur-  and how it would impact my family members in Germany. I was learning how to use a carbon copier without getting purple stains on my fingers. I was experimenting with a word processor. I wasn't fascinated by change. I was just trying to cope with it. Now, I'm racing to help children cope. 

Today, I blink and it seems the changes are coming at us more fast and furious than the Queen's Guards. Knowledge acquisition, transfer, and storage has been bolstered by never before seen speeds on liquid processing chips, in devices so fast they make your head spin. And that's the point - change is here, faster than ever, and can leave you dumbfounded- but it isn't slowing down. It will only pass you by, if, like the Cheshire Cat, you like to nap. Young Alice needs our help more than ever before to figure out how to navigate her new world.     

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

May 9: the Day of the Falcon

"Still when all is said and done, somewhere one must belong; even the soaring Falcon returns to its master's wrists." 
- Truman Capote

As another levy season in a small rural community comes to a dramatic end, I am thankful for the comrades in arms who so fearlessly take up the fight to protect and uplift the children of our community. I am so happy they are freed of the burden of the stress of a lengthy campaign that so often takes the focus off of our seminal work: educating the next generation of Falcons.

Much like young Luke Skywalker in the Empire Strikes Back, the journey for school leaders becomes a struggle between the push and pull of the forces they must endure, unseen by many, resisted by some, and mythical to others. But the force, you see, is alive and well and all around us.

Leaders learn to harness the greyspace in between the black & white opinions of those full of  certainty, fear, hatred, or even bliss. Leaders manage and evolve even when injured by those closest to them. Leaders grow their successors with a keen eye to securing their influence on the next generation, against all resistance. Leaders learn to master themselves and their skills so that they can model for others.

Levies results are portrayed historically as the "voice of the community". What they are, in reality, is the thermometer used to take our temperature. A healthy majority sends a signal about the strength and health of the entire body of a community. A failed levy vote is another reading altogether, and the temperature should concern the entirety of the community, for its health is in question for all to see.

Elders and children alike are all equal parts and segments of any community. The schools are, in fact, protectors of these generations growing in our community. And there's the rub!

Yesterday will forever be known as the Day of the Falcon at Graham. We may not be as healthy as we would like to be today. But we are growing stronger by the day. Our temperature is temporary. Indeed, an entire new generation will soon take over this community with a fierce sense of loyalty and pride for the school community in which their children will thrive, not only here, but in America.

Our children are our masters. There is never a perch otherwise for the Falcons.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

April 3: Tin Cup

"It was their father's task to make homes; it is their task to keep those homes; it is our task to help them with their fight..Spending like this is not waste. It would spell future waste if we did not spend such things now." - Franklin Delano Roosevelt address on the Dust Bowl, 1936 

"Well, I tend to think of the golf swing as a poem." - Roy McAvoy

Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy is a former golf prodigy living in dusty ghost town, with little ambition, in the 1996 classic film. Roy has spent years "laying up" instead of having the nerve to take a shot at redemption. Love and competition ultimately drive Roy to try to get even with his rival Simms. Roy decides to try to qualify for the U.S. Open and makes a play for his sport psychologist to help rebuild his self-confidence and take his place again among the greats- playing poetic- his way. 

In the climactic scene, risking humiliation and disqualification, Roy decides to "go for it". After several misses, on his 12th and final shot the ball finally clears the water hazard and amazingly rolls directly into the cup. After a wild celebration, Molly re-assures him about the immortality of what just happened, "Five years from now nobody will remember who won or lost, but they're gonna remember your 12!" Roy had earned redemption. Graham can too.

Imagine the calamitous times of the early 1930's. As America tried to climb out of a worldwide depression, community projects took on a whole new meaning. They literally held communities together, especially those mid-American states affected by drought. How to ship water? How to grow crops? How to use public works to support farms? How to rebuild broken jobs, homes, entire towns? At some point, someone had to "go for it". People realized they were stronger together. They sacrificed and rebuilt their communities together. FDR didn't do it with words. It was small, rural America that took action and brought the United States out of the Great Depression.

It took the full commitment on the part of local citizens, industry partners, state government assistance, and federal funding to clear out the dust from those tin cups. To build and maintain community takes work. Ultimately, when we let that work slide or we place more importance on other priorities, community suffers, therefore we all suffer the quality of life we create, and the lack of confidence that poisons our thinking about it. We live with the lowest level of community accountability we choose to tolerate. We know this. Graham has done this far too long. After 25 years, isn't it about time we changed our fortunes?

This is the truth for my community and our schools right now: we've been laying up for years. We've never recovered our competitive edge from the debacle of past funding troubles. What did it do for us? How have we helped children and their community recover? For years this school community  chose not to position itself to "go for it".

Now is the time! On May 8th our school community has another shot at redemption. We can show all the competition we mean business. We can right past wrongs. We can build confidence knowing our plan for Future Ready schools is working. We can come together. We can shape our own shots- our own story. We know this. We just have to go for it. Five years from now, no one will remember anything but that WE did this together. WE are all Graham.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

March 8: User Data

"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing." Theodore Roosevelt

Building and maintaining a positive school climate takes all of us. But school culture is different. Changing a school culture over time is never about imposing one person's will, or peer pressure from others, or a small group's opinions. To truly work to implement change over time, several pieces must be in place:

1. Research
2. Input
3. User Data

To implement anything worthwhile for the long run, there has to be a vision. Once a vision is in place, and goals established, then research, the input of stakeholders, and user data help an organization to move beyond opinions, nostalgia, and outmoded methods to get to the crux of the changes needed for improvements or outcomes sought.

When people are given research they didn't have before, they can form new views. When given the opportunity to share valuable input, they can choose to take that opportunity, or not.

It's been our focus to build capacity through some user data over the last two years at Graham. User data is both formal and informal. It's the anecdotal data we collect from testimonials once someone has risked something new. It's evidence, such as a certificate of completion. It's student climate. It's also the formal data we examine from adaptive assessments to glean important information about student progress and teaching. It's the accountability that comes with intervention program success, or growth goals being met in a teacher's professional development plan. User data are the earned accomplishments of students.

You see, user data isn't anything other than the measures an organization defines and values. If the measures aren't valued, they aren't the right focus. At Graham, our decision-making, in fact, is directly linked to a community document called Graham 2020, which is well over a year and a half old now.

The community values embedded in Graham2020 are our focus. Our focus guides my actions. Our focus guides our leaders. Our focus directs my missions as I embrace my role. My focus is about doing what's best for children first, and doing the right things to attain the outcomes my team focuses on. So when changes affect others differently, or our team focus raises dialogue, we can celebrate it, learn from it, and by listening to all, still keep our focus and improve upon our initial intentions with even better outcomes.

I recently observed a meeting of a student seeking approval for their Eagle Scout project with district leaders. It was a positive and constructive experience for the student, who was told yes! The adults did what was best for the student, and the right things in guiding him through the process to receive acceptance and support in one conversation. User data? You bet!