Tag Archives: elementary school

Rogue Lenses and Miniature Elephants

rogue rōɡ/ adj.

  1. Vicious and solitary.
  2. Large, destructive, and anomalous or unpredictable.
  3. Operating outside normal or desirable controls.

Twenty three minutes. That’s how long it took me to coax my contact lenses on to my eyeballs this morning. That was a pretty good split for me. I consider taking twenty three minutes to put in my contact lenses a small, but significant, victory. Made my day!

I go to war with my contact lenses almost every morning. Rarely do I walk away victorious. Yes, the contact lenses eventually show mercy and smugly lay themselves over the pupils of my baby blues. On the very worst of mornings, however, a rogue lens will sometimes flee to the deep dark corner of my eyeball. Once, after 30 minutes of poking and pressing a lens on the vicinity of my right pupil and repeatedly missing my target, I waved the flag of surrender. I assumed the lens had escaped by jumping to my bathroom floor. Defeated and discouraged, I didn’t even bother to look for the scoundrel. I just grabbed my loyal Burberry frames and ran out of my house, late for work, tense and sweating from the battle.

Later that morning, while reading a legislative update, I felt a seismic sneeze developing in my sinus. I instinctively closed my eyes as the blow reached my nostrils, bracing for the eruption. When I opened my eyes, I flinched and then grimaced, feeling what I thought was an eyelash stuck in the corner of my eye. Irritated, I walked quickly to the restroom, poking and picking at my eye once again. Standing in front of the mirror, I grabbed each eye lid with my thumb and pointer finger and pried the lids apart. I stepped closer to the mirror. Staring at my eyeball, I spied the outer edge of the runaway contact rolling into sight from the back of my eye socket! Apparently, the lens had been hiding behind my white orb for several hours. My earth-rattling sneeze dislodged it and pushed it to the surface! “A-ha! Gotcha!” I squealed, as I pinned the lens to the corner of my eye with the tip of my finger and not so skillfully slid it into its proper place. Victory, right? Well, not exactly. One lens in in one eye and no lens in the other is useless. Defeated again.

I try to keep a diverse supply of lenses at my disposal. It’s my belief that effective school leaders look at every situation through as many different lenses as there are stakeholders. As I have just demonstrated in the preceding war story, not all lenses lay on the leader’s eye as comfortably as some. But, no matter the discomfort, no matter the effort required, all lenses must be utilized to gain perspectives otherwise overlooked. Leaders make decisions based on their own perspectives as they intersect with the multiple perspectives of stakeholders. Perspective is a function of knowledge and experience. Without knowledge and experience, the view through any lens is likely to be skewed.

I am reminded of a book I read for an Ethno-music History class during my freshman year in college – The Forest People, by Colin Turnbull. The ethnographic descriptions in this book are all about perspective. One vignette comes to mind: A boy who has lived his entire life under a jungle canopy finds himself for the very first time looking at a herd of elephants in a huge clearing just at the edge of the jungle. Having never experienced any real space, having no real concept of visual distance outside of the crowded jungle foliage, he reaches out to touch the tiny elephants that appear to be just inches before his eyes. Looking through a lens limited by lack of knowledge and limited experience, he does not realize that these elephants are enormous and in fact several hundred yards away. They are not miniatures, and he struggles to make sense of this realization. But, with a new lens through which to view the elephants, a whole new world lies before him.

I struggle at times to take advantage of opportunities for impacting student learning when the view I see through any lens is limited by my lack of experience. I am currently working with our district Family and Community Engagement team to re-focus district wide efforts for increasing student learning through parent engagement. I will limit the impact of this effort if I try to view each of our 23 schools’ parent engagement needs through one lens. My lens is bias. That bias grows exponentially when I consider the intersecting perspectives of the numerous parents, teachers, administrators, and community members who are on this journey with me. The only way to battle that bias is to utilize the diverse lenses at my disposal. Take one lens out; put another lens in. Repeat. Take that lens out; put a different lens in. Repeat.

When we talk with teachers and administrators about how parents perceive our schools (do they see partnership schools or fortress schools?) we must remove the educator lenses from our eyes and replace them with parent lenses. Some educators who are not also parents might find themselves in a lens war, poking and pressing to properly place the lens onto the pupil. When we partner with parents to ensure that all diverse students are valued and provided equitable learning opportunities, we must put an advocacy lens in one eye and a cultural competency lens in the other. These are not soft lenses. For some, these lenses are not easily worn. They are not even easy to find. Many cultural competency lenses go rogue, hiding behind our white orbs, hindering a clear view of what is real. Some lenses have to be taken captive. “Capturing the contact lens” is actually the technique I’ve developed for securely placing rogue lenses in my eyes each morning. When that sucker just refuses to go in, I literally grab the lens off my fingertips with muscled eyelids, and like a Venus flytrap, clamp my eyes shut. After a little eyelid massage from my finger, the lens, no matter how reluctant, always finds its resting place on my pupil.

We must keep many lenses of all shapes, shades, and sizes at our disposal if we are to build strong parent-school partnerships. We must constantly change those lenses so that we don’t mistake huge elephants as miniature. And, whatever we do, we must never give in to a rogue lense. Even if it takes a battle to get that lens onto my eye, and even if it is uncomfortable to wear, it must be worn. If we allow a rogue lens to jump on to the floor, never to be found, then we risk not seeing from a unique perspective that could have helped one more parent be engaged and one more child succeed.

How many different lenses have you had in your eyes today?

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In My Ear, In the Moment, In 2015

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, which makes both figurative and literal sense when the picture is a photo of an actual thousand pieces. The thousand pieces you see in the picture above is from my dismantled iPhone.  Most of those pieces are not visible to you, because they are tiny. I mean tiny like fleas on a dog tiny, and equally aggravating. And by the way, some of those tiny screws are now forever lost in the forest of my bedroom carpet.  What you are really looking at is a bona fide near miss #holidaycatastrophe. But, lucky for me, I had Jason Mraz in my ear.

I like to listen to NPR on my car radio in the morning while driving to work.  My favorite NPR segment is “In Your Ear”. Guests on the program share the music they currently are listening to on their iPods, and describe why their picks inspire them, move them, or just plain make them happy.  This past week, along with the usual Christmas carols and Fa-la-la-la-las, this Jason Mraz song was in “In My Ear.”:

Living in the moment.
Living my life.
Easy and breezy.
With peace in my mind.
I got peace in my heart.
Got peace in my soul.
Wherever I’m goin’,
I’m already home.
Living in the moment.

That’s a lot of peace.  We can never have too much peace.  In fact, like many educators, I was more than ready for some peace of mind when my Holiday break rolled around last week.  Educators experience a mad flurry of “have to get done” projects and events at the end of December. My mad flurry was no exception, and to slow things down a bit, I decided to cut some Christmas shopping corners.

For a variety of practical reasons, I wanted Santa to give each of my children phones. I did not want, however, to spend any money to get there. My fifteen year-old already owned a beat-up early generation iPhone with a shattered screen that was barely held together with duct tape. My eleven year-old did not have a phone. My wife had recently purchased a new iPhone 6, and my work phone was scheduled to arrive any day. In hindsight, I probably should have just purchased new phones for each of them.  Instead, I succumbed to the evil Daddy Cheap Skate standing on my left shoulder whispering in my ear, “You can spend $30 on two new screens and a tool kit to replace the cracked screens on your phone and Gwen’s phone, and slyly pass them off as new to your children on Christmas morning! Bwwwaaahhhh ha ha! ”  Tempting me further, Daddy Santa Claus Wannabe was standing on my right shoulder whispering, “Picture it! Your beautiful grateful children on Christmas morning, wide-eyed, smiling broadly, and in perfect gleeful unison exclaiming, “Thank you Mommy! Thank you Daddy!” with Karen Carpenter crooning “Happy Holidays! Happy Holidays!” in the background.” A Norman Rockwell moment, right?  Not exactly.

Have you ever tried to replace an iPhone LCD screen?  Well, don’t.  Contrary to what the nice man on the ten-minute  YouTube video says in his best Bob Ross annoyingly calm voice, it is nearly impossible. Just to get to the tiny screws that hold the iPhone together, you have to remove each and every minuscule Silicone Valley part from the belly of that phone.  AND THEN YOU HAVE TO PUT THEM BACK TOGETHER, if you can find each of the removed screws.  Not going to happen!  In the end, one of our phones powered on, but the touch screen did not work.  The other phone’s screen stubbornly remained black, even though it did power on, as evidenced by the two short vibrations coughed from the phone when we flipped the ringer switch.  My wife and I spent seven hours – I am not exaggerating – SEVEN hours locked in a very tense room trying to create the perfect Christmas moment.  Seven hours we will never get back.  Our Christmas happy disappeared somewhere around hour three.  There was no “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” in that room.  My wife was crying and I was on the verge of tears myself.  Christmas was ruined.  Then I remembered…I had Jason Mraz in my ear:

If this life is one act,
Why do we lay all these traps?
We put them right in our path
When we just wanna be free.
I will not waste my days
Making up all kinds of ways
To worry about some things
That will not happen to me.

Of course Christmas was not ruined.  But, I had set myself up for failure. I had laid this trap myself and led my wife and me right into it.  I was not “easy and breezy” with peace in my mind, heart and soul.  Instead, I viewed every passing moment as a threat to a happy family Christmas.  Instead of living in those moments, taking on the challenge with joy, I batted defensively at each one and watched them fly by with despair.  Once those moments passed, I didn’t feel relieved; I felt defeated. Those moments became part of the past, lost to time, never to return again. Some argue that the past and the future are really just creations of man, ideas that cannot be proven. The only thing we can prove, they say, is that we are here right now, in THIS moment.  And, now, actually THAT moment is gone. And, THAT one.  Get ready…here comes the next moment…and there it goes.

When I think of life as a series of precious moments strung together, one after the other, it gives me a renewed sense of purpose and empowerment.  I can choose to live in those moments, even the most difficult moments, breath them in and taste them, soak in them and experience them as the gift of life itself.  This includes moments in my personal and professional lives. An educator’s day consists of a stream of quickly moving and high energy overlapping moments.  According to Shawn Achor (@shawnachor) of GoodThink, Inc. and author of The Happiness Advantage, the key to my happiness as a school leader depends on whether I live in each moment as if it is a threat or a challenge.  I chose school leadership (or did it choose me?) because of its problem-solving focus, so I know I can live happily in the moment of any challenge.  In the moment of a perceived threat, however, I just react and miss the moment altogether. Peace of mind, heart and soul will flow only from my choice to accept a difficult moment as a challenge rather than a threat to merely survive.

As I head into 2015, I’m choosing to live in each moment, viewing tiny little screws and thousand piece problems as challenges rather than threats.  Instead of trying to create perfect Norman Rockwell moments to live in, I’ll live in the moments I’m dealt.  With peace in my mind, in my heart, and in my soul!  If I get a little off course at work or at home, I’ll pay closer attention to that song in my ear.

I’m letting myself off the hook for things I’ve done.
I let my past go past
And now I’m having more fun.
I’m letting go of the thoughts
That do not make me strong.
And I believe this way can be the same for everyone…
Living in the moment.

If  you’d like to have Jason Mraz’s song in your ear, go to

 

Lost In a Daydream

“The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.”  – Anatole France
My family and I followed my wife to Europe a few summers ago while she was teaching opera students in Spoleto, Italy. Her teaching schedule allowed one weekend of free time, so we made the most of it using the rail system to see as much of Europe that we could pack into 3 days. It turned into quite the adventure. After spending an evening in a sleeper car on a train from Paris that broke down in the Alps, we found ourselves somewhere between Milan and Rome on a bullet train that was sitting painfully motionless on the track in the middle of grape vineyards. Our trip was halted  because the train terminal in Rome several miles ahead was reportedly on fire. Seriously. The Griswolds’ “European Vacation” had nothing on us.
My daughter, Katelyn, 8-years old at the time, was bored out of her mind sitting on that motionless train. I glanced at her in the seat next to me.  Her eyes told me that she was lost in a daydream as she slowly and smoothly turned a bottle half filled with water over and over.  I watched her for about 10 minutes.  Then, without stopping, she said quietly, “I wonder why the water in this bottle doesn’t just clump up; I wonder why it follows the shape of the bottle.”  I started to say something to her about molecules and blah, blah, blah, but she quickly stopped me: “No Daddy! I don’t actually want to know the answer.  I just want to wonder about it.”  And, she went back to twirling her bottle.
Wow. Out of the mouths of babes!  I learned a lot from my daughter in those 10 minutes.  I saw the seeds of inquiry-based learning up close and personal.  I saw what intrinsic curiosity and a drive to learn looks like disguised as an 8 year-old’s daydream.  I imagined how this same scene might play out in a classroom. How might a teacher huddle up next to a daydreamer, tap into her curiosity and activate inspired learning? 
I stumbled upon such a teacher – a character in a Newbery Award winning book from 1954: The Wheel On the School by Meindert DeJong, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  I had never heard of this book, but Sendak’s name caught my eye in a pile of books a teacher put on an “up for grabs table” at the end of a school year, so I claimed it for my own.  In the story, a teacher challenges his students to wonder: 
“We can’t think much when we don’t know much.  But, we can wonder! From now until tomorrow morning when you come to school, will you do that?  Will you wonder why and wonder why? Will you wonder why storks don’t come to Shora to build their nests on the roofs, the way they do in all the little villages around?  For sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen.”
 
As the story unfolds, these children DO wonder and they DO make extraordinary things happen.  Is this true of our own students: our quiet thinkers who sit on the corner of the playground and our classroom daydreamers who frustrate us to no end because they appear to not be engaged in learning?  Maybe our daydreamers are wondering about things that are more educationally rich than the so-called knowledge we expound. Maybe they are poised to “make things happen”. How can we incorporate into our school day the freedom to daydream about the “whys?” the “what ifs?”  and then provide opportunity for daydreamers to examine ideas that spring from their wonderment?  
 
“But, the school day is short” we all say. Yes, it is. So, why would we waste any bit of it?  We should use that valuable time looking for opportunities to jump into a child’s daydream and awaken their natural curiosity. It comes down to choices about what we value about learning. Can we carve out some instructional time for the daydream, find ways to gently shake it up, and then through artful teaching satisfy student curiosity and guide students to make things happen?  I wonder…

Change Is…(You Fill In the Blank)

I am a visual person.  I like art and images with sharp angles and clean lines.  Angles are strong.  Lines are reliable, predictable.  I am drawn to Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of line and angles in his architecture and stained glass.  I can stare at long stretches of city skyline for hours, mesmerized by the tall vertical lines of the buildings and the linear expanse of horizon beneath.  A line represents decisiveness and control of self, as in “This is where I draw the line.”

I often photograph objects that are defined by prominent lines.  I took the photo for this blog’s title page (take a look above), with its clean lines defining perspective and sense of predictable destination. Some of my friends have asked me about the photo subject: “Is it a retro disco bowling alley?” No, it is not. “Is it an airport runway at night?” No. Although, now that you mention it, rows of runway lights at night would make for an exciting photo shoot! “Did you snap this photo during a near death experience as you slowly moved toward the light?” That one made me laugh. No. That didn’t happen either.

I shot this photograph in Pittsburgh.  The photo is from inside the Fort Pitt Tunnels – or, as the locals call them, “the tubes” – that cut through Mount Washington. I grew up in Beaver, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles north of “the tubes”.  Going into the city was always a treat when I was a kid. Weekend day trips to see Willie Stargell and the Pirates beat the Phillies at Three Rivers Stadium, the Barnum and Bailey circus at the Civic Arena, or the annual river regatta always began with a trip through the tubes.

As a kid, the drive through the tubes was magical. Still is. If you are from Pittsburgh, you know what I am talking about: Entering the tubes, light momentarily turns to darkness. Eyes adjust to the glow from pale yellow lamps lining the tunnel ceiling. The AM radio station goes static, replaced by the hum of the car wheels bouncing off and between tunnel walls.  Looking ahead through the windshield, a small hole of light in the distance grows bigger, and bigger, until a sudden blinding flash accompanied by the blare of returning radio music announce the majestic downtown Pittsburgh skyline and its adorning three rivers. The way the city just appears, poof!, as if out of nowhere takes your breath away.  I’ve made that thrilling trip hundreds of times, each time with obvious and absolute certainty about where the tunnel leads. Completely predictable, familiar, and safe.  Confining walls serve as guiding lines and provide a sense of control over where I am headed . Tunnel vision, I suppose. I like to know where I am going.

My mom is the same way.  My dad often lovingly says of her, “The woman knows what she wants.”  Mom relies upon predictability and control of her space. My children went to visit my mom and dad for a weekend this summer.  When they returned home, the first thing my daughter reported was a description of going to church with Grandma.  Apparently, even at church, Grandma tries to control her space.  My daughter recounted: “Dad, there was a pillow on the pew.”  I replied, “I’m not surprised. I remember those pews being hard on the hind end.”  My daughter clarified, “No.  Dad. It was Grandma’s pillow, one from her living room, waiting there for us. Dad, she saves that seat by leaving a macrame-covered pillow on that same pew each week. A pillow from her living room. Did you know that?  She leaves it there, Dad.  Each week. Don’t you find that weird?”  Aside from the macrame, I honestly did not.  It makes perfect sense to me. Grandma, like me, finds great comfort in the predictable and in the familiar.  And, if she can control her space by marking it with a tacky pillow from her living room, by golly she will do it!

The problem with permanent pillows on pews and predictable trips through tunnels is that inevitably one day Grandma’s pillow will be moved to another pew and my tunnel vision will limit a view of what could or might be.  Then what?  And, those reliable lines? Illusion. They are not really all that reliable.  There are no straight lines in life.  While I may be able drive through a tunnel and look in the rear view mirror to see where I have been, there really is no telling with certainty where I am headed.

I took this photo in the bathroom at the Pinewood Social in Nashville, TN.
I took this photo in the bathroom at the Pinewood Social in Nashville, TN. Great food!

Life is full of uncertainties.  Life is the sum of a succession of uncertainties and constant change.  Change simply IS.  And, because change IS, we can’t see the future and we can’t control what will or will not be waiting at the end of the tunnel.  When we experience unexpected change, we can choose to fold or we can adapt and embrace the change as an opportunity.

I am currently experiencing unexpected change.  Six weeks ago, I thought that I was on one path, only to find that God had a different plan for me.  In my case, the change presented a career opportunity.  And, while I struggled mightily with the absence of a clear line, I seized the opportunity.  As a school leader, I am trained to lead adaptive change, to encourage and guide my school community through necessary change for the benefit of student learning.  I feel very comfortable in that role, and I enjoy it.   But, when the shoe is put the other foot, and I am experiencing unexpected change, I find it unsettling. This is a good lesson for me as school leader.  It teaches me empathy for educators who experience disequilibrium when change, planned or unplanned, flips their teaching worlds upside down.

Take one more look at the photo of the Fort Pitt tunnel at the top of this page.  The photo is actually upside down, as if we were driving alongside the ceiling lights.  When I set up this blog several months ago, I intentionally flipped the photo to remind me that even the most familiar and seemingly predictable of life comforts will eventually, and probably without warning, be someday turned upside down.  When that day arrives, I will have to adapt to that change and still find my way to the light at the end of that tunnel.

So, filing in the blank in the title of this post, for me Change is . . . like traveling through a tunnel toward a destination I’ve chosen, and suddenly realizing that the tunnel has been turned upside town creating disequilibrium and life uncertainty.  If I view this topsy-turvy ride as liberation from tunnel vision and an opportunity to grow and learn and contribute, I will adapt and thrive.  I can experiment and take risks, and give myself permission to fail. I can redirect my line of vision and refocus my sight on a new light at the end of my tunnel.

Epilogue:   Hoping to gain some different perspectives regarding “change”, I recently asked my #PTcamp PLN, educators from across the US, to send me Voxer audio clips finishing the sentence, “Change is …”  and to provide insight regarding the change process in education. They gladly accepted the request.  You can listen to their comments on Coloring Outside the Lines at BAM Radio Pulse here.

Surprise & Delight on the First Day of School

I moved with my family from Western New York to Northern Kentucky just over 4 years ago. It was a big move for us in every way, including new jobs for both my wife and me: Gwen as a college professor and me as a school principal.  We were anxious about starting new jobs, but as parents, we were were mostly concerned about how our children, Jacob and Katelyn (10 years and 7 years old at the time) would adjust to a new school community that is literally 15 times the size of their previous school district.  
 
Everyone in the Detwiler house experienced intense first-day-of-school jitters that first year.  I was excited and nervous about meeting my new school family, and my wife and kids felt the same about their schools.  I was thrilled to be taking on the Lead Dreamer role in a new school, and I enjoyed my first day visiting classrooms, talking with teachers and staff, and meeting parents.  But, I was also distracted all day thinking about Jacob and Katelyn. Were they okay? Did Jake puke at lunch? Did Katelyn meet a boy and run away? Yes, I do tend to exaggerate.  I call it “literary license”.
 
I could not wait to get home that night to find out how the first day of school went for my children. As I entered my house and walked into the kitchen, I was practically knocked off my feet by my son.  Jacob could not wait to tell me about his Science teacher: “Dad, you will not believe what she did!  Get this:  She turned off the lights and lit a candle … a CANDLE dad, in the classroom. Then, in a soft voice (Jacob lowered his voice for dramatic effect) she said to us, ‘Things are not always what they appear to be.’ Then, she blew out the candle.  And, do you know what she did next?  (Now loudly, with glee) SHE TOOK A BITE OUT OF THE CANDLE! Then another, and another, until she had eaten the whole thing!!  Can you believe that, Dad?!”  Well, I of course said, a little concerned, “No, I can’t believe that. What was she actually eating?”  Jacob leaped out of his chair and with giddy laughter replied, “A POTATO.  She made the candle out of a potato! All of us, the whole class, were dead silent, watching her eat the candle. We all thought she might be some kind of witch. But, don’t worry, she’s not. It was a potato. Get it, Dad?  ‘Things are not always what they appear to be.'” Then Jacob said the magic words that to this day still bring tears of joy to my eyes, “I love it here! This is going to be the best year ever!”
 
Surprise & Delight.
 
I am fortunate to be part of a team of educators from my school district who is participating in the University of Kentucky’s Next Generation Leadership Academy this school year.  During our first session, we met Mr. Buddy Berry, the Superintendent of Eminence Independent School District in Kentucky. (Follow him on Twitter @BuddyBerry and #surpriseanddelight) Mr. Berry’s inspiring presentation was about the incredible transformation his school district has undergone in terms of innovation and 21st century learning.  His entire story was captivating. However, it was something Mr. Berry said toward the end of his presentation that has stuck with me for weeks.  Paraphrased, it is this, “The best measurement of student engagement is how many times our students go home at the end of the day and exclaim to their parents, ‘You won’t believe what we learned today!’ THAT is engagement with Surprise & Delight.”
 
Surprise & Delight is also a powerful hook for engaging parents.  My superintendent in Boone County, Kentucky, Dr. Randy Poe, often reminds school leaders, teachers, and staff to make parents and the community “raving fans” of our schools so that they become our strongest supporters and active partners in education.  Citing the book Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles, we make raving fans of our school community by discovering what our customers want and deliver “plus one”.  In public education, this requires us to talk to our customers – our students and our parents – to discover what their education needs, hopes, and dreams are, then deliver on them.  In my opinion, the “plus one” can be fulfilled through Surprise & Delight.
 
While many of you are still looking forward to the first day of the school year, my first day occurred  over a week ago. Let me share how teachers and staff in my school provided Surprise & Delight to both students and parents, before school even started, exciting a school community that is now eager and hopeful for the best school year ever:
 
– Teachers invited students and parents to summer picnics and to “Meet Me at the Playground” afternoons, and started building important relationships with families. 
– Teachers made summer telephone calls to their students and families introducing themselves and expressing enthusiasm for the school year ahead.  
– During our school “Meet and Greet” night, families were photographed in a photo booth, and the photo was attached to a card that asked the students and the parents, “What are your hopes and dreams for this school year?” The cards and photos now hang in the school hallways as a reminder that we value parent and student voice and that we are committed to seeing family dreams become reality.  
– On the first day of school, as children got of the buses or were escorted into the buildings by their parents, they were greeted by dancing teachers and staff with smiling faces, while one of our teachers, dressed as a club D.J., amplified fun celebratory music that blared all over the campus. A little unorthodox?  Probably.  Surprising & Delightful?  Most definitely!  I heard a number of parents say, “I love this school” as they were headed to their cars.  See for yourself… 
 
 
These are just a few examples of how Surprise & Delight infused into a school culture can be a legitimate strategy for building trust and relationships with families.  What about you?  As you are preparing for that first day of school, as you are aligning lesson plans to learning standards and putting the last touches on your classroom Maker Spaces, STEAM labs, and Literacy Studios, don’t forget to ask yourself, “What is my plan for Surprise & Delight?”  If your plan comes from your heart, is purposeful, and is executed with confidence and joy, you will make “raving fans” of your students and of their parents.  Guaranteed, your students will go home and exclaim to Mom and Dad, “You will NOT believe what I did at school today!” Use Surprise & Delight to fuel student and parent engagement on the first day of school and sustain it throughout the year. 
 
Note: Do you want to “Steal Like an Artist” and try the lit potato / candle trick to Surprise & Delight your students on the first day of school?  Find out how it works and the science concept behind it here.

Hire Teachers Who Empower Parents

I’ve just recently started referring to myself as my school’s Lead Learner, following the example of extraordinary educators I’ve met through #PTchat on Twitter (Wednesdays at 9 pm EST; shameless plug, I know) and through my summer #PTcamp Voxer conversations with my PLN.  If you’ve read my other two blog posts (yes…two…I’m a blogger-in-training), you will not be shocked when I tell you that I am kicking around a new leader label: the school’s Lead Dreamer.  Not to leave you hanging, but I have to move this particular post along, so if “Lead Dreamer” does not make sense to you, you might choose to read my other posts after you finish this one. 🙂 
 
Hiring exceptional teachers is one of the most important Lead Dreamer jobs. Effective teachers make the most difference for student learning.  These teachers embody certain identifiable dispositions.  One critical disposition of effective teachers is the desire to build relationships with parents and the ability to draw parents into the school community as partners in education.  These teachers build school-parent partnerships that have positive impact on students.  Schools who hire these teachers empower parents by sharing teaching and learning knowledge and by including parents regularly in the school decision-making process.   
 
My school district has embraced dispositional hiring for finding the most effective teachers to lead our classrooms. One of my favorite interview disposition questions is: “Will the parents of students in your classroom be involved, engaged, or empowered, and what is your role in getting them there?”  Of course, there is no “right” answer to this question. However, if the hiring committee listens closely to HOW the candidate responds, they can get a pretty clear picture to what extent the candidate values parent-teacher partnerships.  For example, an answer such as, “I will ensure that my parents are involved by providing them opportunities to make photo copies and to help when I need it,” does not likely indicate a disposition for fostering true parent-teacher partnerships. On the other hand, a candidate who responds with, “My students’ parents will be empowered to join my class at anytime during the day so that they might learn along with us and share their experiences with us,” is likely a teacher who values school-home partnerships. 
 
Over the summer, armed with my disposition questions for hiring, I set out to build dream team interview committees of educators and empowered parents. For the first interview cycle, I received 206 applicants for one teaching position. I decided to conduct three rounds of interviews.  The first was a screening round where pairs of educators and parents asked applicants four questions, two of them being disposition questions.  From there, we narrowed the field down to six candidates who interviewed with a full committee of educators and empowered parents.  Finally, two finalist candidates were invited to teach a classroom of Grade 5 students in front of the committee. After the lesson, the students were given the opportunity to provide input – student voice – regarding the teacher selection.  Did the parents on the committee feel empowerment in the education process?  Did it make a difference?  You betcha!  Kim, one of the parents on the interview committee, described her experience:
 
“I was surprised at the entire process.  While the disposition interviews, panel interviews, sample lesson being taught to kids were impressive, it was your willingness to trust and put your faith in us to find the right teacher. I felt empowered, as did my daughter, to have a voice in the process.  I’m sure that the candidates that came through my room, were less than thrilled to only meet two parents during disposition interviews, but it sent a strong message as to what your vision/voice is about our school. While this new hiring process is lengthy, you should continue to do it this way and always ask parents to be involved.”
 
For a second interview process, I turned the parent empowerment dial up a notch.  I assembled a hiring committee where the educators and parents were equally represented in numbers: five parents and five educators. The parents on the committee were parents of the children assigned to the class for which we were hiring.  Maria, another parent, described her participation this way:
 
“I’m going to be honest, I thought maybe we (as parents) would get to ask a few questions but otherwise be there mostly as a side note. I might be a bigger “nerd” than I originally thought; but being able to be a contributing part of the interview committee was absolutely invigorating…. we were trusted with the freedom to comment during the interview and ask the candidates our own personalized questions. Huge!”
 
Do parents want to be engaged and empowered in their child’s learning? Of course they do.  But, we have to provide them with the opportunities, entrust them with the knowledge, and likely give up a portion of the control to which we have grown accustomed. Listen to how the following parents from the interview committees describe their desire to be engaged and empowered:
 
Jen: “I would like to see a stronger Parent-School partnership in every aspect of education, from being more active in the PTA or PTA activities to being present more in the classroom. I am a single mom with a full time job so I know it can be difficult, but it is so rewarding to be a part of your child’s/children’s education.”
 
Maria: “We have hundreds of kids in our school, that means that we have a whole lot more sets of parents associated with these children. Each of these parents are good at something. Experts at something. Trained in something that maybe nobody else in the school knows anything about. I would love to see parents in the school teaching classes or something as simple as making a presentation on something they specialize in, mentoring kids, using the skills they have gained through their lives to help advance our children. For instance, I’m a commercial certified inspector for a pest control company. I could talk to the kids about bugs or maybe have a presentation for the staff on helping prevent bed bug infestations or avoid taking it home.”
 
Knowledge is power.  In schooling, we educators are the keepers of that knowledge. Hiring teachers who will empower parents and who embrace school-home partnerships is essential for all students to find school success.  The more we empower parents in the decision-making process, the more engaged parents will become in their children’s learning and in the school community. The question is, are our schools staffed with teachers and leaders who possess the dispositions to take that leap? Hiring with effective teacher dispositions in mind is the answer.

Imagine … Diversity as Points of Light

“It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”   – Anais Nin, author of Henry and June

I am fascinated by impressionist painting, especially the work of French pointillist Georges Seurat.  If you have ever visited the Art Institute of Chicago, you undoubtedly spent several minutes gawking at Seurat’s enormous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884.Seurat meticulously placed individual dots of color on a canvas knowing that the eyes would manipulate points of light in such a way that the colors would blend together to form discernable figures of life.  The whole IS greater than the sum of its parts, you know?  With your nose pressed close to the canvas, you see seemingly randomly placed multi-colored dots. But, from 10 steps away, your eyes adjust to see impressionist characters enjoying a Sunday afternoon in a park.

Close up Sunday

In many ways, pointillism painting serves as a metaphor for embracing and celebrating multiculturalism and diversity in a school community.  I’ve come to realize this through a global professional learning network of educator and parents.  Together we are currently reading and discussing the book, Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family / School Partnerships.  I cannot adequately describe how invigorating it has been to reflect and dream with these amazing people, seeking to build strong school-family partnerships for the benefit of student learning.  Chapter 6, “Addressing Differences: How Can You Deal With Issues of Race, Class, and Culture?” has presented somewhat of a challenge for me. I have always prided myself as a champion for parent engagement and empowerment.  However, I’ve regretfully discovered through this study that my leadership may neglect a focus on individual identities and school diversity from a multicultural or global competency perspective.  It pains me to think that my oversight may have actually created barriers to empowering parents rather than helping to tear those barriers down.

Being purposeful in the celebration of diverse of people in a school family – differences of race, language, income, religion, sexual orientation, occupation, ethnicity, class, disability, culture, and nationality – is like seeing a Seurat painting through a magnifying glass. With your nose pressed against the canvas, you see distinct specks of light and color.  But take 10 steps back and truly look at the canvas.  What do you see?  What are you purposefully looking for?  Because of my reflection in and the invaluable input from my PT Camp PLN, I am refocusing my gaze, looking for a beautiful picture created by the blending of light and color, a picture that is celebrated and valued as something bigger, something more meaningful and powerful than the individual dot occupying a singular space . That is ONENESS.  Like each speck of light, each family in the school community must be celebrated for uniqueness and valued for its integral role in teaching our children and ourselves the true meaning of multiculturalism and the necessity for pursuing a global perspective.

Easier said than done, right?  It is a journey, for sure.  No single stroke or dab of a paint brush can magically take us to our destination.  It will take time.  As the school leader and leader dreamer, I have to start somewhere:

  1. Promote an Understanding of Different Cultures. Understanding requires a certain level of inquiry and a “wanting to know” attitude.  I need to model this attitude for my school community, and begin the conversation with my faculty.  I will use Chapter 6 as a centerpiece for this discussion, and encourage teachers to engage in self-reflection regarding their own cultural competence, global perspective, and how this perspective strengthens the school-parent partnership.  This self-reflection will contribute to the requirements of the Kentucky’s Teacher Professional Growth and Effectiveness System.  We will survey our instructional units to find opportunities to meaningfully embed, not just knowledge about, but an enduring understanding and awareness of different cultures through Project Based Learning and arts integration.  Art is an authentic reflection of culture. We will utilize the rich Cincinnati regional arts communities as partners for assisting students in creating and responding to multicultural art forms.  We will also utilize exemplary children’s literature as a springboard for student and parent discussions about the contributions of the diverse cultures in our school community.  From there, we can reach out to the global community via Google Hangouts for discussions and debates with classrooms from around the world, and these can be streamed live via YouTube into homes for parent viewing.
  1. Recognize and Address Class and Language Differences. My school is experiencing swift changes in the demographics of our families. When I arrived at my school in 2010, the school free and reduced meal rate was 17%.  Today, it is close to 40%, and for the first time in its 23 years, the school will likely become a Title 1 school in the near future.  It would be irresponsible for me not to recognize and address class differences in the midst of such rapid change.  I believe this is best initiated in a public forum, opening avenues for dialogue and for families to express in their own words the impact of economic hardships on their ability to be engaged parents in the school.  The same question should be posed to families whose first language is something other than English.  In response, we will recruit our various parent groups to partner with faculty, and together we will attempt to provide remedies for barriers to parent engagement.  Some of these remedies might include bringing school functions to neighborhoods when transportation to school events is an issue, or flexing parent-teacher conference times to allow for parent attendance at different times necessitated by odd work shift hours.  We will also provide interpreters at school-wide events and for parents who do not speak English who simply wish to visit or volunteer in the classroom.  For example, I envision Literacy Studio reading conferences that are “triangulated” with the help of interpreters: English Language Learners engaging in discussion about literature in their home language with teachers and their non-English speaking parents with the aide of an interpreter.  For all of these strategies, success will depend on the authenticity of our extended hand and our desire to build relationships with families, regardless of class or the language spoken at home.
  1. Address Issues of Race and Racism. Of the four listed here, this may be the most difficult for me to address.  It would be naïve of me or of any school stakeholder to assert that issues of race and racism do not exist in our school community.  I am not sure that I have ever looked through the appropriate leadership lens to bring these possible issues into focus. In the process of bringing these issues to light, I imagine dialogue that is honest, compassionate, and exudes a sincere desire to build relationships is required.  This is an area that I will simply say, “the buck stops here.”  I am not equipped to address these issues alone.  For that reason, I will seek local advocacy groups and agencies to assist me and my school family.  One that immediately comes to mind is the Bowles Center for Diversity Outreach, Inc.  This organization holds an annual fall conference each year in Northern Kentucky, providing tools and strategies for school and community leaders to address issues of race and racism.  I will start here.  Hold me accountable for providing an update on my progress via a future blog!
  1. Welcome and Respect All Families. If I am nothing else, and if my school is nothing else, we are a welcoming school … at least in terms of how we see ourselves, and in terms of how we define our identity.  As the title of my blog implies, “This is where MY sidewalk ends…” we emulate the way children naturally dream, and we welcome dreamers and believers into our school community. It will take dreamers and believers to push global perspective and multiculturalism to the front of our mission.  We welcome all families. But, do we truly respect all families in a way that assists them in being engaged in schooling?  If not, I believe we have it in us to make it so.  From my vantage as lead dreamer, I will begin re-framing events and opportunities to simply ask all families, “How can we be of your service?”  This begins by building a foundation of trust.  For example, in Kentucky, we collect school fees to pay for a variety of learning materials.  Traditionally, we collect these fees during the first school event of the year, and it is called “Fee Night”.  This title alone sends the cold message, “Stand in this line and have your check ready.” Yuck. This year we will have a “Meet and Greet” night instead, and hopefully families will hear, “Welcome.  We want you to get to know us, trust us, and partner with us, because we value what you bring to your child’s education.”

As I reflect on these action steps, I am reminded of an incredible four weeks in 1996 when I visited schools in Japan with a delegation of American educators through a Fulbright Teacher’s Fellowship.  I kept a journal during that trip.  Excerpts from my final journal entry remind me that in the early days of my career, and on that incredible trip to Japan, I was formulating ideas about the purposes and necessity for the global perspective in schooling:

“Oneness.  Similarities.  Common goals. These are the lessons that I have learned on this journey to Japan.  I came to Japan thinking that I would learn about the differences in our two cultures and education systems.  I did.  But, I am also walking away with an overwhelming sense of universal respect for the education of children.  Our different cultures may approach the education process in different ways, but we still share the same goal of educating children.  At the conclusion of our farewell reception last evening, a teacher from Washington, D.C. spontaneously began signing John Lennon’s “Imagine”.  Simultaneously, all 200 educators formed a circle, held hands, and began singing, “Imagine all the people living in this world as ONE…” I took a moment, looked at the diverse faces around the room, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the moment – one occasion, one meeting.”

Imagine.  Today, I am imagining my school as a home, a safe place, for all diverse families to feel welcome.  We are one family, together seeking to understand the rich cultures and beliefs that comprise our school community. That is ONENESS.  Not sameness, not striving to be color-blind, but learning to see in Technicolor and celebrating the diversity of God’s peoples.  This appreciation of diversity in the school community is like viewing a Seurat painting: I can stand back and take in the beauty of the whole, but I must often step closer to the canvas and allow my eyes and soul to focus on the individual and diverse points of color and light to fully understand that it is the unique individuals that comprise the core strength of ONENESS.

 “It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”  – Anais Nin, author of Henry and June

 

Invitation – My First Blog Post

(Modified and re-posted from a 2012 Monday Minute email message to my faculty & staff.)

I am a dreamer.  Even at 44 years of age, I’m still convinced that my childhood dreams will one day be realized.  I will climb Mount Everest.  I will write a Grammy-winning song.  I will score the winning goal in a Stanley Cup championship.  And, yes, I will win a gold medal in the Olympics.  Hey – there is always the winter sport of curling – it could happen.

My dad is a dreamer, too, so I come by it honestly.  When he and my mother dropped me at my college dorm many dreams ago, he handed me a letter as he was leaving.  He wrote, “Son, follow your dreams.  You will find a few of them.  And, for the many that you don’t find, you will learn perseverance and tenacity, and you will be a stronger man for it.  It would be far worse that you look back in 30 years, and wonder, “What might have been?”  I can tell you, I don’t wonder.

I am a total sucker for a sappy lyric about dreaming “the impossible dream”.  I still love the Muppet Movie song, “The Rainbow Connection” for the lyric, “Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection – the lovers, the dreamers, and me.”  As I told my faculty on opening day a while back, the first time I heard the Owl City lyric, “Chase your dreams…Take to the sky”, I decided that I would eventually use that song as a school kick-off slogan.  And, when I was watching the Olympics closing ceremonies in 2012, and John Lennon made a magical appearance on the big screen singing “… you say that I’m a dreamer.  Well, I’m not the only one”, I decided that school year would be the one.

If I could, I would chisel the popular Shel Silverstein poem, “Invitation” into the sidewalk leading to doors of my school building. I cannot think of better words for welcoming young children into a building where the pursuit of their dreams will be honored, celebrated, supported, and validated as real possibilities, results of hard work and excellence in trying and learning.  For us educators, I would argue that Silverstein is throwing down at our feet a bit of a challenge. I enthusiastically offer those words to you:

 “If you are a dreamer, come in! If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer… If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire, For we have some flax golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!”

Are you up to the challenge?  Let’s go!