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Student Agency: How Will You Answer the Call for Change?

 

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Get Off the Treadmill and Rediscover the Joy of Learning

1As we ring in the New Year, many of us are making the resolution to get ON the treadmill and begin to exercise to lose those unwanted pounds that have built up over the previous year(s). But I am not asking people to get ON the treadmill; rather to get OFF of it.

Over the break and because of the four-day weekend mother nature gave us in Massachusetts, I had some time to think, reflect on the school year, look at initiatives, and talk to my two high school-aged children. Once the year starts, we all become consumed with making sure kids are reading at grade level, preparing students for the MCAS exam, assessing our kids, covering all standards, looking at new math programs, closing achievement gaps, moving the needle, writing curriculum, and the list goes on and on and on. All of these are critically important and needed to make certain that kids are successful. But are they everything? What do you do when you catch yourself on that treadmill and can’t get off?

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I watched my two children prepare for the end of the term and semester exams. They are creating schedules, meeting with teachers, making up missed assignments, and studying; all of which are necessary and a part of being in high school. But as they said, “I can’t wait for the next two weeks to be over.” All of us in education, administrators, teachers, students, faculty, and staff get on that treadmill at the start of the year and just GO! I truly believe it is important to get off that treadmill and have students and teachers rediscover the Joy of Learning. Isn’t that why we went into teaching in the first place?

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A lot has been published about student agency and having students have a voice in their learning. How powerful is that! Makerspace Labs are a great way to do this and just one example of it (there are hundreds more). Laura Fleming published her 7 Attributes of a Great Makerspace. Not only do they apply to Makerspace Labs, but also to student agency, and to what we can do to help kids rediscover the Joy of Learning. They are:

  1. Inspiring
  2. Intentional
  3. Personalized
  4. Deep
  5. Differentiated
  6. Empowering
  7. Equitable

Imagine if we created lessons and opportunities that:

  • Inspired kids and the curiosity for learning 
  • Were intentional in our methods and creativity 
  • Made the content and learning experience personalized for each student 
  • Were deep and enriching 
  • Differentiated for ALL students in the class 
  • Empowered students to feel part of the learning process 
  • Created equity for all of our students

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If we could stop and get off that treadmill and do this once a month how powerful would this be for our students? And this not only extends to classroom teachers but also to administrators. Take a look at department meetings, faculty meetings, central office meetings, can we change our structure on occasion to do the same for teachers? The answer is also yes, and the benefits would be the same. What type of impact would all this have on a school’s culture and climate?

Over the next month look at one of your lessons or meetings and ask yourself what can I do differently to inspire a Joy of Learning? The results will be great.

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Start with the WHY

Simon Sinek has a concept that he calls the Golden Circle and over the last few years I have watched his presentation of it several times. It is a simple concept that helps define why some organizations and leaders are more successful than others.

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This is the Golden Circle and it looks simple. Everyone knows WHAT they do. Some are able to state HOW they do it. But very few can clearly articulate WHY they do it. Most leaders and organizations communicate and lead from the outside (WHAT) to the inside (WHY). However the effective and successful ones lead from the inside (WHY) out (WHAT). Here is a simple example of each using our guest speaker Jamele Adams from a few weeks ago. We had Jamele come to speak to kids (WHAT), he came during the day and again at night (HOW), his message is important for all to hear (WHY). Now here it is in reverse. It is important for all kids to understand inclusivity, diversity, and the role it plays in our community (WHY), we will have a guest speaker come and talk to us about it (HOW), he is excited to share his message with everyone next week (WHAT). Which one is more powerful? Which one is more inspiring? Which one would you rather hear?

Start with the Why:

As we lead initiatives in our schools or in our classrooms, it is important to start with the why. Interestingly enough very few people do it. Why are we bringing in a guest speaker? Why are we having an assembly? Why are we having a test? Why do we have tomorrow off? Why are we looking at our evaluation tool? Very few of us for any of the aforementioned and other things we do in school start with the why. So the question is…why? As we move forward and if we want to effectively lead change in our schools, we must start with the why.

People do not invest in what you do, they invest in why you do it:

Why is it critical to start with the why, because people invest in why you do things, not what you do. Think about those teachers that inspired you? Or those lessons that students loved? Or those leaders that inspired you? I imagine that they started with the WHY? The successful school leaders can clearly articulate what they value and a school’s core values and beliefs…that is the why. More importantly, people can quickly tell you what those leaders value.

This week we mark the quarter part of the school year. As we move forward I challenge you to start with the WHY.

Navigating the Waters of Change

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Last year I was introduced to the Assistant Superintendent Leadership Seminar put on by MASS. Last Friday was our first meeting of the school year. These sessions are rich with discussion and give all of us time to reflect on the work that we are doing in our schools and help us push our thinking to better ourselves and our districts.

For the last hour we watched a Tedx Talk by Rosebeth Moss Kanter entitled Six keys to leading positive change.” The description of the talk was as follows:

From the power of presence to the power of voice, leadership expert and Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter discusses the process of making a difference in the world. Kanter uses the stories of great leaders and ordinary people to reveal the six success factors that are the keys to positive change, including lining up partnerships, managing the miserable middles of change, and sharing success with others. This uplifting talk from TEDxBeaconStreet will inspire you to lead and take action. (Tedx Talks)

Short, sweet, and caught our attention. Six simple factors that will help us lead change in our schools. As we know change can be tricky, scary, and very rarely desired. As Robin Sharma stated, “Change is hard at first, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end.” All of us as leaders know the importance of change, but also fully realize the fear associated with it. Heifetz and Linsky in their book Leadership on the Line do a wonderful job explaining what occurs when change happens in schools. They write, “when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear-their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking-with nothing more to offer perhaps than a possibility. People push back when you disturb the personal and institutional equilibrium they know.” With this knowledge and what I have seen throughout the years, I was curious to hear about her six steps. Oddly enough they were very straight forward:

Show Up

Speak Up

Look Up

Team Up

Never Give Up

Lift Others Up

Simple, powerful, effective and all critical in leading change. As leaders, we must show up. We must be present and visible in leading a change initiative; regardless of the negative reaction it may cause. We must speak up and share with everyone why we are doing this; communication is the key. We must look up and listen to people. We need to hear their fears and apprehensions and validate them while also explaining why this change is for the better. As we know in leading initiatives nothing is done alone, we must collaborate and team up. Change takes time, it does not happen overnight. In education we want immediate results, but we must learn to never give up regardless of the time table or opposition received. Finally, it is important to lift others up. People need to be heard, listened to, and recognized.

After the video, we had a great discussion on these steps. All six are critical parts of leading change and you can’t have one without the other. Now, if only leading change was as easy as following these six steps our lives would be much easier. As you think about a change initiative that was successful in your school, did you include all six of these steps? On the other hand, as you think about an initiative that failed, were there any steps that you missed? In the end, as leaders, we must always be willing to change in order to grow. As Tony Robbins said, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always gotten.”

Welcome 2017-2018

Monday I start my 24th year in education. Each year begins with tremendous optimism for everyone: students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Kids can do and will do it; they will succeed. It is our responsibility to find a way to reach every student and help them reach their fullest potential. As we begin this wonderful 180-day journey, I wish each of you the very best and remember every day why we are here….to help kids succeed to their fullest potential, no matter how difficult, no matter how many obstacles we must overcome, no matter the reason. Our kids deserve it!

 

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Enthusiasm through Empowerment

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For all of us, whether as administrators, teachers, students, or parents, the start of the school year is filled with all sorts of emotions. There is a sense of sadness that summer is over and the relaxed feeling that accompanies summer days has come to an end. There is the knowledge that the hectic pace of the school year is about to start and not end for the next ten months. The summer gives us time to pause and reflect on the previous year and also allows us to recharge for the start of the next year. Regardless of the joys of summer, I often hear people say, “It was a great summer, but I am ready to get back to school.”

A new school year is filled with excitement, rejuvenation, and anticipation. These feelings are only natural and motivating. For those of us on Twitter, our feeds have become inundated with back to school messages that cover a myriad of topics. There is even a hashtag #1st3days to mark the start of the year. Regardless of your role or how many years you have been in school, everyone has that sense of enthusiasm to start the year. Knowing this, I ask the question…

“What are you enthusiastic about to start the school year?”

As the year begins to unfold, that sense of enthusiasm and excitement begins to dissipate week by week, month by month; it is only natural. Over the last few days, I have reflected on this very notion…

“Why do we lose that sense of enthusiasm?”

And

“How can we maintain it all year?”

Is it even possible? Who knows, but it was worth exploring. Through my journey, I discovered a book by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani entitled Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Own Learning. The title grabbed me…

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“Could we as teachers help students maintain that level of enthusiasm if we empowered them throughout the school year?”

So I bought the book for my Kindle and began reading and thinking. Two chapters in the book jumped out:

Ch3: Empowering students means giving kids the knowledge and skills to pursue their passions, interests, and future.

Ch 5: It’s not about giving them a roadmap for learning, it’s about having them create their own maps.

After reading these chapters I asked myself…

“What if we as educators, found a way within our classrooms to empower students to follow their passions, would this help build and maintain that level of enthusiasm?”

I would imagine more could be gained if we created a structure that allowed students to follow their passions for a portion of the school week, found a way to have them relate it back to what was being taught, and allowed for an authentic assessment of learning.

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Juliani created this chart for the 20% rule as a way to empower students to guide their learning. 20% of a day or a week may be too much time. But let’s not focus on the time, but the concept of empowering students in an engaging and authentic way. There are many ways to do this, and this is just one. So I ask the question…

“How will you empower your students this year to maintain that level of enthusiasm throughout the school year?”

REIMAGINE, REDESIGN, AND REINVENT

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I was fortunate enough this week to have attended and presented at the MSSAA Principal’s conference. A future blog post will cover the message of that presentation. I always enjoyed attending this conference as I came back to work with new ideas and big picture themes to implement in the upcoming school year. I attended several break out sessions over the two days but was left thinking a lot about one from the Admin. team at Nipmuc High School. They challenged us to reimagine, redesign, and reinvent what we are doing in our schools and in our districts. This message has given me reason to pause, reflect, and plan for the upcoming school year; more importantly, it has inspired me.

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Schools get “stuck” in doing things the same way. Opening days meetings, welcome back to school nights, assemblies, concerts, lesson plans, tests, projects, final exams, etc. What if we, as schools, principals, leaders took a step back and reimagined some of these events? Redesigned them? And then reinvented them? What could and what will happen? Think about that…. We can’t do it for everything we do, but what if we picked one thing a term or trimester, how could that change things in our district? My guess is it will make it better. I plan on doing this throughout the year and will challenge our team here to do the same. The end result will only benefit our kids.

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To Exam or Not, that is the question?

Last week I had dinner with a colleague who decided this fall that his school would not be giving students final exams. We discussed his decision and his rationale for it; truth be told, a lot of it made sense.

Over the past few days, I have been helping my own children as they prepare for their final exams. The review packets and the exams they took, highlight the very reason why my colleague decided to eliminate exams. What they had to study for was arbitrary and a basic regurgitation of facts, dates, and concepts. There was very little that showed that a student mastered and understood the material at a high level. Simply put, this was a rote activity that rewarded memorization rather than understanding at a high level.

I know I am painting all exams with one broad brush, but as I thought back on my experiences as a teacher and building principal, this tends to be the norm. Is there a better way to assess students to show mastery of material? Some schools have replaced final exams with quarterly common assessments. This helps students prepare for reviewing large quantities of information as they get ready for college. If schools are still looking to have final exams, that are worth 10%-20% of a total grade, then maybe the format needs to change. Would students be better served by doing a capstone project, writing a paper, doing a project etc.? Maybe the time of final exams for high school students has run its course? It is definitely worth a discussion.