Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Tale of Two Libraries

The summer of 2013 was probably one of the most important hiring years during my seven-year tenure as a high school principal. Now don’t get me wrong, I hired so many amazing educators over the years and will forever be indebted to the incredible work they did for our students.  Upon leaving New Milford High School a few weeks ago, I was like a proud father who watched his children grow up, mature, and experience undeniable successes that forever changed the teaching and learning culture there.   The summer of 2013 will always stand out because that was the year that I was able to woo Laura Fleming back to not only her Alma Mater, but also where she was originally employed for years. 

In my opinion great leaders surround themselves by great people.  The hiring process can make or break a school culture.  This is one of the most important aspects of educational leadership as the nuts and bolts of the change process come from those doing the most direct work with our students.  It represents an opportunity to find the missing pieces to move an aggressive agenda of growth and innovation forward.  Finding the right people is often an arduous task and at times is fraught with mistakes.  

When the position of library media specialist became available she was the only person that I wanted for the position.  She was hired with one major objective and that was to transform the media center into a vibrant learning space. For years it was a place that students and staff alike avoided.  Outdated books filled the stacks, food and drink were not allowed, student devices were prohibited, and senseless rules were consistently enforced.  It needed a digital age and pedagogical reboot.  Without any specific guidance from me I bestowed upon her the autonomy over the budget and space that eventually laid the foundation for change.  However, it was her unrelenting desire to create a space that worked for kids that lead to a total transformation.  

Below is what the library looked like prior to her arrival.

This is what it looks like today. 

The learning atmosphere in the library is nothing less than amazing. Just take a look at this CBS New York video and you will see for yourself.  In September of 2013 Laura laid out her plans to create a makerspace. I offered whatever assistance I could give in terms of monetary support and then did the next best thing I could do – I GOT OUT OF HER WAY. Never once did I second-guess what she was doing or purchasing as I knew when I hired her that she was a doer, difference-maker, and spark plug for change.  The learning space that was once in the traditional library has now been taken over by the students. You see, Laura knew that once the space was up and running it would only continue to evolve.  She then got out of the way of the students.  By respecting their voice she empowered them to take ownership of the makerspace. Thus the baton has been passed and now the students are in charge.  

To learn more about Laura's amazing work visit Worlds of Learning. For specific information in regards to her philosophy of makerspaces check out Worlds of Making

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Learning That Matters

The other day I posted the following statement on social media, "When was the last time any of us had to take a standardized test in our careers? Answer = never. So why is this done to kids incessantly?" I should have clarified my comment a bit more by explaining that I was referring to repetitive standardized tests being taken while in the same job with the same school, company, or corporation.  My point was that there seems to be a disconnect in terms of how many times K-12 students are now subjected to standardized tests compared to the majority of professions. Yes, many career paths require entry-level exams and those that identify essential skills sets needed to do the job. Some jobs even require routine re-certifications. Many, however, do not require another test once a passing score has been achieved.

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The problem I have is that most jobs in both the public and private sectors utilize differentiated means to evaluate job performance. Goals are established collaboratively while keeping or losing a job isn't determined by how well you can bubble in or electronically respond to answers on a test. Now let’s make a connection to learning.  Ask yourselves this, can you clearly make a connection to the results of a standardized test you took and its impact on your current job? I sure can't because most of the tests I took lacked any relevancy and meaning in terms of what I really wanted to do with my life. Sure the SATs and GREs were important benchmarks that I had to score a certain level in order to move through higher education, but I was not one bit passionate about taking them. I can also emphatically state that both exams did absolutely nothing for me in terms of my career in education. There are so many problems with standardized tests that I can go on and on writing about them.

So why did I take them? The answer to this lies in society's overreliance on attempts to quickly and efficiently quantify learning. This is not learning but forced conformity into a system that focuses more on numbers than actual skills that can help one succeed in life. This comment from Lain Lancaster on the Google+ thread sums things up nicely:
"I'm baffled by your country's rush to standardization all across education systems (tests, common core etc.) when research has pretty much proven it's the opposite of what education should be.  (I'm in Canada) Not only that, but thanks to modern technologies, society in general is moving away from mass production/consumption to individualized production/consumption. Yes standardization is easier, and produces lots of pretty data, but there's scant evidence that it’s effective anywhere in realm of education."
So we continue to press forward in a direction that virtually everyone knows is wrong and misguided.  Why do companies like Google go out of their way to provide their employees with spaces where they can play and relax? Play has been stripped away from students so there can be more time to prepare for the tests. The best learning experiences I ever had were experiential in nature. They involved play, creativity, failure now and again, tinkering, collaboration, and meaningful feedback.  If life is all about preparing for and then excelling on standardized tests will that allow society to push forward and solve the plethora of pressing issues that our world faces today? The bottom line is that life is not a standardized test and results on these will rarely determine how successful our students will be in life. We all would be better served if school focused more on preparing students adequately to excel in the real-word instead of wasting time forcing them to take test after test that they see know value in. If true learning is what matters than we should model that in education.

So what are you thoughts?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Change Comes From Within

Change is a word that is thrown around in education circles more and more each day. We are made to think that education is in a downward spiral and that students are ill prepared to succeed in college and/or careers that require students to think and apply learning differently.  To some extent this might be true, mostly due to mandates from decision makers that do not, or have not ever, worked in a school.  This notion and the resulting rhetoric have become such that change initiatives have to be forced upon educators in a more or less top-down fashion if we are to produce a learner capable of succeeding in a ever-growing dynamic world. Compounding the issue are a myriad of directives passed down from Central Office that lack substance and do not have true impact on student learning and achievement. These commonly arrive in the form of internal professional development initiatives that chew up a great deal of time, but rarely achieve the types of systemic changes that are intended.  In these cases there is little to no embracement from those who are tasked with implementation. 

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The fact of the matter is education has to change, but how this is initiated should no longer be a contentious topic for discussion or debate. We all know that the structure and function of the majority of schools across the globe no longer meet the needs of students in the digital age. So as a knee-jerk reaction politicians and other stakeholders not affiliated with schools establish changes through policy while connecting this to the evaluation of job performance.  Enter the age of standardization and computerized assessments that will test the living daylights out of students in the United States over the course of their lifetime in K-12 education.  The fact that there is no valid research base to support these mandates just builds greater resentment for the change process. This is a great example of forced change. Forced change rarely works. One just has to refer to the history books to see how this has played out across the world since the beginning of time.  Where there still is forced change turmoil, economic instability, and mistrust run rampant. Is this the environment we want for our kids?

Many educators feel trapped by the pressures to conform to a system that focuses more on a numeric value as opposed to learning.  Learning should be fun for our kids. It should pull on their passions and creative desires while allowing them to choose how they want to demonstrate new knowledge and skills that have been acquired through authentic experiences.  What I describe is almost impossible to fathom for educators as schools have, and are being, transformed into new age testing factories chock full of scripted lessons to prepare students for the test. The focus on learning has been lost with full attention being given to numbers.  This does not have to be the case though. There is a quiet revolution that is gaining steam as more and more educators and students push back against the very policies and mandates that have been forced upon them.  You need to decide if it is worth it to conform or to carve out your own path instead to provide your students with the education and learning experiences they deserve. 

Meaningful change has and always will begin at the individual level.  This is also where it is sustained to the point that it becomes an embedded component of school and/or district culture.  It does not rely on someone being in a leadership position in a traditional sense, but more so on a desire to want to change professional practice. This is the point where all educators and students must realize that they have the capacity to lead change. School leaders need to remove barriers to the change process, remove the fear of failure, provide autonomy, and empower teachers to drive change at the classroom level.  

These successes can then be promoted within the school and district to serve as a catalyst for cultural transformation. The same holds true for both teachers and administrators when it comes to students, who happen to be our number one stakeholder group.  Schools are designed to meet the needs of our students, but if they are not given a seat at the table and allowed to be a focal point of change efforts that ultimately impact them then we are nothing more than hypocrites. Never underestimate the power that you have to make your school, district, and the entire education system better.  Be the change that you wish to see in education and others will follow.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Ultimate Gift For an Educator

Contrary to the belief of some, educators work extremely hard for little financial incentive when you look at the amount of hours that are put into the job. Whether you are a teacher or administrator, your work has always been about the students first and foremost.  To a lesser extent, but important nonetheless, has been the desire to collaborate with colleagues to enhance learning environments and experiences for education's number one stakeholder - our students.  It all comes down to learning, no matter how you slice and dice it, both on the part of the students and educators themselves as professionals. This innate desire to improve methodologies, pedagogical techniques, environments, and professional practice are the defining characteristics of educators across the world who are making a difference in the lives of students. In our profession it is rare that we receive meaningful impact on our work until a moment in time pulls us in another direction, yet educators continue day in and day out to help all learners discover success.

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This is how I felt for basically all of my fourteen years as a public school educator.  As an administrator I always tried to help my students and staff experience success.  Did I always succeed? No way, but all my decisions were based on doing what was best for students and creating a school that worked better for them than for us as the adults.  I pushed my staff and myself to become better with mixed results at time. The motivation that kept me going was that I thought it was having a positive impact, but like I said earlier, meaningful feedback is tough to come by.  

This summer has been exceptionally difficult after I made my decision in July to leave New Milford HS. I had no idea how tough my last two days this week were going to be.  My professional family opened up like never before and humbled me with positive feedback. It made me feel very awkward, as my success has only come to fruition as a result of their willingness to embrace change and transform our school culture.  Bottom line is that my staff have and always will be the true catalysts for change at NMHS.  The end result has been a learning experience that our students not only deserved, but also expected. Then, just after I thought I had shed my last tear, I received the ultimate gift. I do not say this lightly.  This was the BEST gift a student has or could ever give me as an educator and it came, fittingly enough, through social media.  In the past I have blogged about how amazing Sarah Almeda is, but what she did touched my heart like nothing before. Her video is below.

What Sarah did literally brought me to my knees as I cried hysterically on the first day of my new job. I would never have known the impact that I had on her if it wasn't for her selfless act to create a meaningful tribute using her exceptional talents. There have also been tweets and emails from staff that reaffirmed my confidence in American education and my belief that we as educators have so much power to make a difference in the life of a child.  To educators across the globe, keep up the noble work you do for the sake of helping every child discover his/her passions.  You might not always get the feedback that you deserve, but I can assure you that your students will appreciate you in ways that you never thought were possible. That my friends is why we chose to become educators. Not for money, perks, or fame, but to positively impact kids because it is what we were meant to do.