Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Launching the School Year

Launching the 2019 - 2020 School Year 

 Some of us have been in the swing for a few weeks, and some of us are getting ready for opening day.  As I was reflecting on the magic that's happening at my school site right now, I thought I'd take a moment to share some of the big ideas that keep coming up for me.  So here's my first attempt at a "listicle," thanks to middle school teacher extraordinaire, Nupur Sethi, @nupurssethi for the idea!

I'd love to hear from other leaders and educators what you think contributes to a successful culture and environment.  What are the ingredients for your success?

Friday, August 2, 2019

Rethinking Monday Memos

Does writing the Monday (or Friday Memo) seem like a chore to anyone else?  Does anyone else struggle with getting people to read their Memos? I hear a lot of people offering candy or gift cards just to get staff to read their Monday Memos.  I don't know how I feel about that, if people aren't reading the memos, then why am I writing them?  For myself?  The memo needs to be useful, connected, and inspiring.

In the past three years, I've experimented with different formats, sending it in both digital and print form, and playing with giving or "re-presenting" information in a focused and digestible manner.

So, I decided to figure out how to make my Monday Memo more dynamic, more innovative.  A teacher suggested possibly doing a podcast.  I like that idea, but I personally like being able to focus my attention in the areas I want in the time I need, but the podcast, as far as I know doesn't allow for the listener to do that.  So, I think I'll save that suggestion for something else.  I decided to take to the internet to see what some of my fellow school leaders are doing with their Monday Memos.  I came across this blog http://principalj.blogspot.com/2011/12/leading-way-with-staff-memos.html
I'm excited by the idea of a blog for a Monday Memo!  Instead of sending a PDF, I send a link with the most recent post.  Teachers can have access to past blogs, calendars, links, etc.

For my Memo, I want to include a calendar widget that connects to our staff google calendar.  I love the "Great Things I Noticed" from PrincipalJ's blog, I called it "Inspiration/Kudos" in last year's Monday Memo.  I also plan on having a "Nuts & Bolts" section and an "Instructional Focus" section.  One thing that I struggle with is sharing the research and reflections I do as a result of listening to staff and observing what's going on with them.  I'd love to have a section sharing either my flipboard collections of research and/or my reflections as a response to that research.  In that same vein, my teachers are also doing their own research and reflections, it would be amazing to be able to share their insights as well.

I think the thing that also makes me excited about doing a blog for a Monday Memo is that it provides a convenient way to make the Memo reciprocal.  Teachers can comment on what is posted and connect to other comments made.  We are always struggling with time together on the job.  This is a way to use media to remedy that.

Does anyone else use a blog for a Monday Memo?  Would you be willing to share with me?  What are teacher thoughts on a blog as a memo? What other considerations should I make?

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Humanizing Power of Collaboration - A School Administrator's Perspective

I just had an amazing collaboration session with a colleague.  I'm still excited, I just had to reflect on it.  Have you ever felt the excitement that comes from bouncing ideas off of each other to come up with something totally amazing? ...where both parties brought great ideas to the table, and where an effortless integration of ideas ensued?  This was a true meeting of the minds.  I brought my thinking and expertise, she brought hers, and together we conceptualized and developed an instructional sequence for a professional development topic.

Here's how it happened:
Today, she came in and shared a google doc.  I took notes on what she was saying, she took notes on what I was saying.  Then we added the helpful links and documents that backed up our thinking.  It was so great because we didn't even have to establish this as a norm.  Once we outlined what we wanted teachers to know and be able to do, we asked ourselves, how do we bring this to them in a constructivist manner?  How do we practice what we preach, and facilitate this in a way that's aligned with the school's teaching philosophy?  So, I brought out the school's constructivist lesson plan template, which uses the 5 Es of constructivism to outline a process. (See infographic below)

Together, my colleague and I laid out a process of exploration and discovery for teachers to dig deeply into this topic.  Teachers will discover their own thinking around an idea and unpack that thinking.  They will learn what other's have learned and determined around the topic. Finally, teachers will develop a common practice and common set of commitments around this work.  I will follow up on their commitments to each other (and the practice) with support and reflective observations.

Why was the process so important?
Tonya Gilchrist (Twitter: @Mrs_Gilchrist) recently wrote a blog reflecting on how we honor teacher agency. Prompting us to contemplate, "how can teachers empower learners with a spirit of innovation and purposeful risk taking when they themselves are asked to comply?" (For those outside of education/sociology, agency refers to the extent to which individuals are free to act interdependently and to make their own choices.  It explores how power structures and distributions might move from a more top down orientation to a more equal distribution of power or a more democratic feel). My answer:  we administrators have to practice what we're asking teachers to do by "living the vision" throughout the system.  WE need to employ best practices in our staff meetings and professional development.  WE have to respect and honor teacher voice, expertise, and experience by providing the space to integrate that experience with something new.  WE have to understand that professional development is not something we do TO teachers, it's something we do WITH them.

I may have had an idea of something that's needed based on observations of classrooms, our data, and an analysis of systems/practice.  However, if I try to implement that idea in my image, teachers are going to see it as another directive, another thing that will soon pass.  Conversely, if I can connect the idea to the needs of the teachers, to their experiences, and facilitate a process where they engage deeply with the topic, they become owners of the idea or vision.  This happens as they construct meaning and create something together.  The ownership involved in co-creation rests squarely on that of the learners, creating a sense of agency.  By exploring a topic together, by building something together, by committing to each other, our sense of collective agency around the topic can change school culture and significantly impact student learning.

But, we shall see how it goes! 😁

Constructivist Process by Genvieve Dorsey

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Taking It Personally

     Have you ever felt the sting that comes from someone inadvertently and/or callously denigrating your work?  Someone said something to me the other day about my school, and it hurt. I was rendered speechless.  My throat constricted, my chest ached.  My mind was spinning.  I tried to shake it off, but people could see the change in my presence.

The Downward Spiral
     I started getting angry and blaming the teacher, the parent, even the student.  Then, I started blaming myself.  I'm the principal, the buck stops with me. Everything from daily operations, instruction, and school culture are in my domain. I started wondering about what to do do about this.  Do I tell the teacher?  I don't want her to feel what I'm feeling, it's sure to negatively impact instruction.  Do I talk to anyone in my school setting?  I don't want this to spread and become this negative wave washing over our school.  What's really the issue?  I never got past the metaphoric statement that was made.  Is it me?  Do I have nothing more to bring to this community?  I feel I do.  I love it here.  We've done so much great work, but is it like a mentor once said, you'll know when you should move on...? Are teachers tired of me?  Are they uninspired?  No, they're not uninspired, they inspire me daily! So, it must be me.  If only I was more explicit.  If only I gave more directives or forced my ideas.  No, no, that never works.  Everything we do we have to do in relationship with others.  Where have I gone wrong in my relationship with the teacher?  Ack!

     This thinking took me late into the evening.  I felt depression settling in.  I withdrew from my family.  I felt awful.  I ended up turning on a meditation podcast to try to ease that tension in my gut and to try to get my mind off this obsessive thinking.  I followed that with some mindless social media scrolling and game playing.  Thankfully, this was enough to calm things down so I could sleep.

Vulnerability and Friendship
    The next day, feeling rested but still down, I talked to a colleague at school.  I let her know my fears around my ownership of this problem.  Very kindly, she reflected back what I needed to hear.  I have brought about positive change.  We see it in our adult interactions and we see it in our kids.  She affirmed for me that, yes, I do have more to give.  I'm constantly questioning and learning in my own practice.  She sees it in the way I interact with kids and teachers, and even in the way I wonder aloud.  I felt better by that.  Later, in the context of a different subject, I brought the feelings up with another couple of colleagues.  They helped me process the "now what?"

Reflection and Action
   In these conversations I realized, that I had a choice - let that information push me into the depths of despair and give up...find a new job where I'm not as vulnerable and invested - OR I could do what I do and inquire further.  I can connect with the individual to uncover the specifics of what prompted the statement. I could also put together a survey or a focus group to uncover what aspects of the comment are pervasive - culturally and instructionally? Maybe there'll be some nuggets of information that we uncover that will help us grow.

    By allowing myself to be vulnerable with colleagues (but thinking about what information I wanted to share), I was able to come to some level of acceptance so that I could DO something other than feel bad and second guess myself.   It helped me to process those feelings so that I could turn to the work.  I think they felt the trust it took for me to be open.  In allowing them in and allowing their support, our relationship was strengthened.  More broadly, they will also see and feel how their support and insights help me formulate my next steps and impact it will ultimately have on our school.
      I also learned some things about myself. This is my process.  I need to move through it. The meditation helped me sleep which allowed me to come back to it with a somewhat clear head.  I learned that being vulnerable is HARD for me, but when I go there, it's almost always cathartic.   I also learned that no matter the situation, setting, etc, I will ALWAYS have something more to bring to the table because I am committed to learning, innovating, and reflecting.

    These feelings will no doubt come again as I am challenged.  So, I'm letting this reflection serve as a reminder to myself.

  1. Notice what shakes you, it's important.
  2. Denial, anger, blaming, depression, etc. is a normal part of the process.  Pay attention to it, but don't let it envelop you.
  3. Mindfulness can help stave those cyclical thoughts to get the sleep or headspace that's needed to look at it differently.
  4. Vulnerability (in leaders) can build relationship and enhance culture.  Allowing myself to be vulnerable helps me to process more quickly so I can get on to doing the work.
  5. You're only done when you choose not to learn and grow.

Edit to include this cool visual shared by @ACOFEE


Saturday, November 10, 2018

Kids Do Well, If They Can

I am a part of a community who values whole child education & “Making Education a Community Passion.” So, it is imperative to take time to reflect on the principles and philosophies that shape our beliefs behind student behavior. I value a Positive Discipline approach for educating the whole child. Addressing (mis)behavior is a vital component for developing the whole-person.

Defining A Discipline Philosophy:
First let’s look at that word, “discipline.” It comes from the latin word, disciplina meaning teaching or learning. The first definitions that come up are:
  1. Instruction
  2. Training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.
  3. A rule, or system of rules, governing conduct
  4. Punishment

I grew up in an era where many of us experienced discipline as meaning the fourth definition. So, how have we gotten away from discipline as instruction?  
This is what Positive Discipline aims to recapture - discipline as instruction. My goal as a site administrator (and parent) is to help students learn to be responsible for themselves. I want students to develop integrity, empathy, honesty, responsibility, and restraint so that they can build constructive relationships and have a positive sense of belonging and significance. The challenge in a Positive Discipline community is to question our own experiences, status quo, and commonly held beliefs - think about behavior discipline in a new way - as instructive.
Punishment and rewards methods of behavior instruction require the adult to be responsible to “catch children being good” or punish them when they have been “bad.”  This system does not help children learn responsibility. Alfie Kohn, a noted progressive education author, calls attention to this “false dichotomy” by reminding us that punishments and rewards are not opposites, rather they are opposite sides of the same coin.  They are both methods of controlling students. Furthermore, Jane Nelson, in her book, Positive Discipline, warns us of the 4 Rs of punishment. When students react to punishment, they can feel: 
  1. Resentment: A feeling of unfairness, losing trust in adults
  2. Revenge: Conceding now, but looking at how they'll win next time
  3. Rebellion: "I'll show them!  I'll do what I want."
  4. Retreat: in the form of sneakiness, plotting how to not get caught or in the form of reduced self-esteem - "I'm a bad person."

Jane Nelson reminds us, “Where did we ever get the crazy idea that we need to make children feel worse to make them do better?  Children do better when they feel better.” Punishments may sometimes stop the behavior for the moment, but they will not have the long term effects that we strive for. Students may even start showing a lack of courage and confidence, rebellion, fear of mistakes, and lack of other useful life skills. So we need something more.

Handling Misbehavior at School - One Model
At Indigo, you won’t see rewards in the classroom because of the belief in the unconditional mentoring of students that focuses on solutions, responsibility for self, and learning to make decisions and choices.  This is a learning process for all of us in the system - students, parents, teachers, and administration! Every year/day is different because the individuals, contexts, and challenges are different. Our goal is to outline the processes, habits, and tools we use for understanding student behavior.
In Lost at School, Ross Greene writes, “You now know that kids do well if they can; that if a kid could do well, he would do well.  And that challenging behavior occurs when the demands being placed upon an individual outsrip the skills he has to respond adaptively.” (p. 54)  This brings us back to the notion of discipline as instruction. As administration, I am constantly engaging with kids, trying to understand the roots of their mistaken behaviors.  What skills are they lacking? How do we teach these skills? What are the perspectives of all involved? How can we stop maladaptive behaviors and teach more appropriate responses? How do we maintain student safety? This involves a detailed process of documentation, dialogue, collaboration, analysis, reflection, and research.
Adult behavior plays a key role in maintaining a culture that promote a positive sense of belonging and significance, a focus on mutually respectful solutions, and a view that mistakes are opportunities for learning.

Stay engaged with students - be proactive at building relationships with them. I would argue that we especially need to positively connect with those that push our buttons to build our sense of empathy and understanding. Get to know their likes, dislikes, skills, dispositions, and passions inside and outside of school.

Encouragement is key to success for building this kind of culture. Rudolf Dreikurs reminds us that, “Encouragement is more important than any other aspect of child raising.  It is so important that the lack of it can be considered the basic cause for misbehavior.”
Indigo Program's Choice Wheel
Some tools for encouragement include:
  1. Taking time for training (your own and that of the child!)
  2. Asking open-ended questions
  3. Having the courage to be imperfect
  4. Seeking to understand 
  5. Using a "choice wheel"

Encouraging statements have different impacts and purposes as well.  For example, descriptive encouragement helps focus a student's attention on something their doing well.  Saying something like, "I noticed... (student action). Is that your favorite?  Do you like/dislike...? (inquiry about your thoughts on the action).  Or, "You worked so hard and didn't give up!  You must be proud!"  When adults call attention to a specific behavior that led to a positive outcome for the child, we are helping the child connect the behavior to the outcome.   
Empowering encouragement establishes a sense of trust between the adult and child.  When we tell children, "I trust you to learn from your mistakes," or, "I trust your judgment," we help them cultivate that positive sense of self.  It says that despite a mistake that's made, we have a strong internal character that knows what feels right.
Appreciative encouragement lets the child feel a sense of connection.  It let's them know they are having a positive impact on others and on their world. "Thank you for...I appreciate your help..." acknowledges the will of the child to contribute positively.
Finally, there are times when words are not needed, or even helpful.  When we can be there for children when they are struggling, we are using energetic encouragement.  Using  positive or neutral body language when a child has made a mistake can go a long way in helping them develop trust and learn from that mistake.

Another piece in developing a culture where students are empowered is to have a common language and approach for involving students in positive conflict resolution.  Middle Ground Parenting, based on the work of Jane Nelson's Positive Discipline helped outline the following process.
Infographic created by Genvieve Dorsey for use by Indigo Program parent volunteers

By working together, using common language and processes to encourage, and teaching our students the habits of healthy responses and interactions, a school community can create a culture where students are empowered to trust themselves and go out and make a positive impact on the world.

(Blog post adapted from article I wrote for Indigo Program parents, using resources developed by Indigo Program Vision Committee)