Tag Archives: parent engagement

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?

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…

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.