Tag Archives: public schools

Game On- Level UP!

As I prepared for the 2017-18  school year, I had lots to consider:  my learning the past year as a part of the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute, the feedback that I received from my students, staff, and parents through various data points, the past that had resulted in the path Degan was on, and the aspirations that we had for our students. The question that kept ringing in my head was “How in the world do I create a vision to help us move forward with all of this to consider?”

My campus had been fortunate to experience lots of success and recognition for the accomplishments we have made with transformation.  At the same time, we have also experienced some pretty big hits to culture. It’s hard to put this much energy into getting our flywheel moving. I think we all thought after three years, it would be starting to have its own momentum.   It’s not very comforting to hear that real change takes three to five years when you are in year four.  How would we keep moving forward? What would be our rallying cry for this next push to transform learning in meaningful ways so that our students could be successful?

The answer was actually in the data.  It was clear that as a campus we had made great strides in understanding what it was students were to learn and proven strategies to ensure that learning.  We understood our changing demographics and could relate to them and build meaningful relationships.  Yet, we were still short of the goal.  What our data showed was that we needed to evolve in how we were having teachers use technology and that teachers wanting to design more engaging, innovative work, but they needed time and practice to make this happen.

Then it hit me.  It was time to get our “game on”, literally, and level up learning for our students.

I love the mental image this theme created.  It acknowledges that first, our work, like games should be fun!  It should be challenging enough to keep our interest, while still being attainable.  We should receive feedback that adds value and helps us shape our decision-making to improve our processes.  We need to feel a part of a network in achieving the goal.

I am so excited about this year.  Today, we had our first professional learning and we made connections to the work of Jane McGonigal and her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  While not everything in learning has to be digital, it recognizes that games release some of the control to the gamer and allow them to test out theories to achieve the goals.  My teachers had the chance to explore how to incorporate some of these concepts into their learning design today.  Today teachers created and shared some cool new ideas.  I can’t wait to see the impact in the classrooms with students!

For my afternoon learning, I got to reconnect with the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute.  Listening to Alan November just reinforced my belief that my campus is on the right path.  When we only focus on testing, we don’t have fun.

Our current generation of students has never lived without technology in their lives.  They spend 2-3 hours a day “gaming”.  According to McGonigal, over the course of their school years from fifth grade to graduation, they will likely spend as much time on games as they do in school.  We have to prepare these new learners for a new future.  That may mean that as adults, we have to “learn” how they learn and incorporate it into the knowledge we want them to gain.  It’s time to level up and do things differently than we have always done. GAME ON!

 

Celebrate Success (Even When It’s Someone Else’s)

It’s pretty easy to celebrate your own accomplishments.  I mean, you know your journey.  You know what you have been through to carry out the goal.  However, it can be harder to celebrate the success of others.  It got me thinking.

  • Do we not celebrate the success of others because of the competitive world we live in?  Maybe we don’t celebrate because we are fearful that someone else’s success diminishes our own.  Maybe it makes us feel a little safer with our own status.
  • Do we not notice? Let’s face it, it’s a fast pace world we live in. Maybe we get so busy, we just don’t see anything going on with anyone else because we have hyper-focused on our own circumstances.
  • Do we doubt the impact our “congratulations” mean to someone else?  Maybe we think that the other person will question our sincerity or even value our acknowledgement of what they have accomplished.

Recently I had a colleague of a campus that had been through a tremendous challenge to help her campus meet some specified accountability standards.  While I had not directly experienced the steps and measures they had gone through to achieve the goal.  I knew it was certainly arduous.  Her team rallied. They invested.  They learned. They reflected and they grew.  Most importantly, they never gave up.  It was huge accomplishment when they achieved this task they had worked on for years.

As I watched them celebrate, it hit me how important it was that not only they celebrate for themselves, or be acknowledged by superiors, but that they be acknowledged by peers and colleagues.  I didn’t know whether my words would really matter to them, but it just seemed important.  When we live in a world where education is constantly under fire, we must stand together in good times and in bad. It just seems like it’s easier to acknowledge and feel pity for someone’s struggles. We must not compete against each other, but celebrate each educational organization as a part of the great big “whole” of public educators who make a difference for children.  That is why my teacher leaders did a twitter storm of celebration for this campus marrying their hashtag and ours to celebrate their success.

I don’t think it matters if you are a district, a school, or a teacher of a classroom.  As Susan Phillips says “Celebrate the success of others.  High tide floats all ships.” When you are in a battle, you unite your armies, not battle over who is the frontline or the support. Both are critical to winning longterm.  We must recognize that every success of any campus is asuccess for all public educators.  It’s a check in the win column to tell the world what a difference a group of educators can make in the lives of children when they have a common vision and purpose. Congratulations, Central Elementary! You have accomplished great things.  You have shown grit, growth mindset, and grace under fire!  You did it and you make us all look good because of that!

 

 

No Excuses (Especially on Saturday)

Two years ago, my campus learned about No Excuses University. It happened accidentally when a visitor to our campus said, “Oh, you’re an NEU Campus.” I had no idea what it the world NEU was, so I looked it up. Basically, it is the implementation of best practices for instruction, combined with a passion for the learning of all students. It is a fierce commitment to adults not making excuses about why a child cannot succeed in school, but rather doing whatever it takes to overcome barriers and ensure that all children (no matter their background, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or disability) are proficient or advanced in Reading, Writing, and Mathematics so that they can go to college if they choose.

In trying to be aligned to this belief, my campus has looked at the students who we believed were not quite ready to hit that “proficient or advanced” expectation and created what we call NEU Saturday. This is a time where selected students come to school on Saturday for two hours so that they have a little extra time to learn. I need to be clear. This has absolutely NOTHING to do with our state assessment. My commitment is not to a test, but to these children’s being prepared for their future. If we do that right, they’ll be fine on a test, but the test isn’t the driving force.

I love this! Learning isn’t about worksheets! It’s about relationships, relevance to life, and things that can connect with the learner!
Because we aren’t bound by constraints of tutoring for a test, we serve all grades. YES, all grades, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. They come and a band of teachers welcome these children with open arms and celebrate the child’s commitment to his education. So many of my students are still learning that things don’t just happen to them, but through the choices they make, they have the power to change the direction of their lives. I tell each one of the students that they are the “chosen” ones. That their teachers specifically chose them to come to this special time because of the grit, growth mindset and commitment to no excuses they make every day.

We feed them a full breakfast. While I know it is big talk in Washington D.C. that breakfast doesn’t make a difference in education, that is just plain malarky. When people are hungry, they can’t think about anything, but their stomach growling and “hangry” is a reality. Many of my children rely on the food from school as their primary source of nutrition. It’s just a sack breakfast with cereal or a muffin, string cheese, juice, and milk, but knowing my students are getting one extra meal over the weekend makes a huge difference.

Then for the next two hours, I have an incredible staff that pours into these children. They talk with them, hug them, and provide them with meaningful learning. They do cool activities with Versa-tiles, read, and play games with higher-level thinking and strategy. There’s not one test prep material. Only opportunities for the students to think, discuss and problem solve in meaningful situations. The best part is that these students say this is the best day of the week and and ask to come back on Sunday, too!


There’s lots of criticism about public schools and their effectiveness. I haven’t seen that. Public education is the heart of our society’s future. It takes ensuring that all children have access to a quality education to ensure they have the tools to become productive citizens in the future. It is when we take off the constraints off and allow educators to do what they love and teach that this happens. They do whatever it takes because this is why we get into teaching: to see all children succeed. No excuses.

Why I Won’t Have a STAAR Pep Rally at My School

Pep Rallies before a standardized test have become a common occurrence in schools. A campus principal’s email can be flooded with people who want to get paid to be a part of these “pep rallies”.   I have been a part of this practice in the past, but since becoming a principal, I have been against this type of practice.  Why, because a ” STAAR Pep Rally” makes the important thing the test.  It sends the message to those people outside education that “the test” is what is important.  I am here to say a standardized test is the LEAST important thing that happens during a school year.

A test is what happens on one single day to measure all the learning that takes place in the course of a school year.  For it to be an accurate measure, all the variables for that would have to be absolutely perfect.  Students would have to have a great night’s’ sleep,  a well-balanced breakfast, a supportive emotional environment before school, and all the supports they need to be successful.

Let’s face it.  Some students have trauma at home. Many don’t have basic needs met.   They don’t always have the nutrition they need.  They may not get adequate sleep. Even our students with disabilities don’t have access to all their IEP interventions because of the rules of the test.  The variables are not the best case scenario for some kids.  How in the world could we expect the test to accurately reflect all they have mastered?

Here is what I am willing to rally over:  students, teachers, grit, growth mindset and all they have accomplished over the ENTIRE year.  At my school, we do this every Friday. Today, on the eve of our standardized test, my students did come to the cafeteria to meet with me.  The rest of the building lined the hallway to applaud their hard work and let them know we stand with them. It was not a STAAR Pep Rally.  It was a celebration of people who work hard to grow in their learning. It was caring about the people enough to let them know they were loved, supported, prepared, and in control of their destiny.

When students arrived, I shared with them my story of having to retake the GRE to get into graduate school to work on my doctorate.  As I sat down to take this test, I felt angry and frustrated.  I felt like there were some words that no one used, so impossibly worded questions, and I just felt there was no way that that test could accurately encompass who I was as a principal or a learner.  It hit me that this was how some of my students felt.

I told my students that there was no way that tomorrow’s test could define them either.  There was no way that this test could fully share with legislators or the public how much they had learned this past year. What I did tell these students was that they were in control, that they had the power to control their destiny. I shared with my fifth graders that sometimes, working hard at a test can give you a benefit.  That while my test couldn’t define me, it could gain me access to a program I wanted to be a part of to improve my life.

For them, working hard to “show what they know” could prevent them from retaking this test in a few weeks, but it would be their choice.  I told my fourth graders that while they weren’t facing a retest, the evidence does show that every time they pass a test like this,  it increases their chances of passing the next one.  No matter what, I told them they were in control.  I wanted them to know they were prepared and had everything they needed.  If they wanted it, they could achieve it.

I think that is what it is all about:  empowering students to know that they have control over their education.  The focus should never be on a test, but the people taking the test and continual reminders that even as children, they get to choose, they get to decide how to define themselves.

 We put tremendous pressure on students to “pass.”  The truth is our actions should support our beliefs.  At my campus we don’t have a test pep rally, we have a “hope rally” every single week where we celebrate teachers, students, and the power of education together as a campus.  While today I did bring students down to meet with me before they take their test tomorrow, it was never about the test.  It was ALWAYS about the people.  Whatever happens, tomorrow doesn’t really change anything.  Don’t get me wrong.  I want all of my students to do well because I know it makes their life easier in the long wrong. However, I know what my students have learned, how they have grown, and how much they have overcome and it far exceeds the constraints of a multiple choice test!

You Can’t Compare Apples and Oranges

This is a great read if you don’t understand why public schools are NOT failing. For example, if you looked only at my campus’ non-disabled, non economically disadvantaged and native English speakers, we would be at the top of the charts. Even so, we are climbing those charts because we educate all children in a social-emotionally healthy, rigorous way.


The great thing about America is that everyone has opportunity. You don’t have to be wealthy, non disabled, or meet a standard to get the in. We start with whatever you give us and grow you. In public education we educate every child. And here’s the great news, if you want a different product or possibility, you can home school, or choose a private school.
Just remember, our constitution guarantees a FREE and APPROPRIATE, PUBLIC education. Everyone having a quality education is how we make America great, not through soft segregation. If you think public schools can improve, roll up your sleeves and help.

If you decide not to help, please just don’t take every report you read at face value.  Rates of American Public Schools include all children.  Private schools, Charter schools, and schools from other countries often have selective processes.  One’s an apple, one is an orange.  However, unlike the picture above, these reports and media stories are clearly labeled as such.  Make sure you only compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

#standupforpublicschools #proudpublicschoolprincipal #donttreadonme

U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World

 

I Choose Thankful

November is traditionally a time of reflections on one’s blessings, and as I think about this school year, it has been full of ups and downs and in only been 13 weeks.  One of the biggest challenges is seeing children bear such heavy burdens. Whether it is a parent’s illness, today-i-choosephysical/emotional abuse or neglect, the loss of a parent through family separation or death, or just the stress of poverty and the worry that comes with it about one’s basic needs being met, it is hard to see children suffering.  Add to this mix teachers who have their own personal stressors and a nation of unrest in a highly polarized political climate. Forget the typical school challenges full moons and holidays, folks; we are talking about real trauma.

Supporting children living with trauma can be a challenge. They bring it in the door. Trauma may not be visible, but a child in trauma will let you know immediately if they are suffering.  With their actions, their words, their lack of connection, they will let you know. They fight, they run, they shut down. Children in the most need of love often ask for it in the most unlovable ways.  It can be exhausting for those responsible for providing “trauma care” much less a high-quality education.  One could easily lose hope.

However, I have learned so much from supporting children of today.  If you can make that thankful-people-are-happyconnection, create that bond, make the child feel safe, there is no better feeling in the world. When you watch a teacher persist to form a relationship despite multiple attempts by the student to push them away, there is a sense of pride to be a part of an organization that puts first things first.

I have learned that it is in the most difficult circumstances that the biggest blessings are revealed.  We can be grateful for the challenges and know that they are helping develop our character into who we are meant to be, or we can feel mistreated.  

We always have a choice.   We can feel wronged, or we can be grateful for the challenges and know that they are tied to a greater purpose.  We can worry about the difficulties we face, or we can choose to feel blessed knowing that we will never be given more than we can handle.  We can grieve the things we do not have, or we choose to see the abundance of our lives and all the opportunities that lay before us. Thankful isn’t something that happens, it’s something you do on purpose. And when we choose gratitude, it becomes you-have-a-choiceimpossible to feel stressed.  They are two emotions that cannot exist at the same time.

So while it is difficult to see children suffer, I choose to be thankful that I get to be a positive force in their lives.  While sometimes the behavior of these students can be beyond difficult, I am blessed to have a staff willing to learn about trauma and utilize trauma-sensitive practices to support these students. While there are many times I have pondered thoughts of “if I just had more… (time, money, staff, parent involvement, resources)”, I know that in my district and community, I have an abundance of support and trust to make decisions that are best for our children, not just a few, but all of them. While it would be easy to lose faith facing such challenging circumstances, I choose to have grit and hope in the future of public education and how we can teach children coping strategies and value for each other in addition to reading, writing, and math.  I am blessed.  I am thankful.  Are you? It’s your choice.

When Things Get Messy

So I have a couple of blog posts that are in the midst of composition and then October hits. October is traditionally a hard month.  The adrenaline from the beginning of the school year wears off a bit and the demands of what is required to achieve goals for the year is now the reality.  This school year has been an unusually challenging beginning for my campus. It’s not that there were any events we haven’t dealt with before, they just seem to come wave after wave and in multiples! It’s been messy for sure.

Today I saw this:

i-dont-quit

 

I love this. We always have the power to choose our response to adversity. My staff and I have faced some crazy situations this past nine weeks, but I am always impressed by their ability to put children first and approach each challenge with grit and growth mindset.

I once had a superintendent who referred to the profession of education as the “people development business.”  In education, we aren’t creating machines that can be put together by following a blueprint or a set of instructions.  Each child we touch turns out differently and can be unpredictable even when using a similar formula.  Working with little humans can be messy, but it is always worth it because the joy of watching a child learn and evolve to their potential is always exciting.  Besides, it’s when things get “messy” that the real learning occurs, for everyone, not just the children.

It Takes One to Grow One

Being the principal of a Title I school with fifty-two percent of our students coming from impoverished backgrounds has been a challenge, to say the least.  Three years ago, we began our journey making sure all teachers clearly understood the learning standards.  We expanded the second year to include some quality training in small group instruction, higher level thinking strategies, and writing.  This third year we have really worked on when teachers growunderstanding our students, especially those who come from backgrounds that may be very different from our own. It has become clear that relationships are key, and to develop relationships and give feedback in ways that are meaningful, you must truly understand the one that you are giving the feedback.

As we have entered the second semester of our third year, I have been amazed at the progress I have seen in such a short time.  Teachers and staff are teaching our students skills at deep levels.  Not only are they able to apply it in the context of the classroom, but the students are also starting to be able to transfer their learning into abstract testing situations. It was looking at our last round of data that got me pondering.

Yes, all the things we have intentionally worked on as a school are important.  But I have to admit that there was something present that allowed these initiatives to be successful.  At their core, the staff members in my building exemplify the characteristics of strong learners.

  1. Curiosity and Desire to Learn- Teachers who are learners continually assess their current situation and the factors that impact it.  They ask questions like “why?” and “what if?” to help them make sense of their world.  They are not satisfied with someone else’s definitions for understanding, but must experience them for themselves. Their classrooms are an experiment of trial and error to find what works.
  2. Grit in the Face of a Challenge- Teachers  who are learners recognize that failure is a part of learning.  Even when you have a path of steady growth, there is eventually a Grow-Brainplateau or even a dip in progress.  Teachers who are masters of learners accept this as a part of the growth process.  When faced with a challenge to their progress, these teachers persist, taking risks to find new ways to overcome the challenge rather than accept defeat.
  3. Growth Mindset to Continue to Improve- Often, once we as educators learn a strategy that works, we cling to it, even when it is no longer effective.  Teachers who are learners recognize that the goal is to perfect the craft of creating learners, not a strategy.  Teacher Learners are continually reflecting on their practice and learning so that they keep up with the needs of their students.  They know that the need to learn is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength in that they recognize the power of continually evolving.

I think no matter the circumstances: whether students come from affluent, middle-class, or poverty backgrounds, to grow children into learners, you have to possess those characteristics. When you have these traits of a learner yourself, and you understand your students you can instill these same qualities in them. How can you help another person achieve this level of learning if you haven’t experienced it yourself?  It really does “take one to grow one”!

If You Take All the Mouse’s Cookies

This is an article I wrote published this month in National Association of Elementary School Principals’ magazine “The Principal”.

https://www.naesp.org/principal-novemberdecember-2015-breaking-cycle/inspire-growth

Why Complete Privatization of Education Won’t Work

Credit for graphic to Jim Wyre
I read an article today where Brittish Prime Minister David Cameron calls for the elimination of all public schools in the UK and to replace them with private academies. So what, right?  It’s not even our continent.

The problem is these same conversations are taking place here, in America, in Texas! There are those who think private funding and vouchers make educational opportunities better. They try to convince us it is good for all because it allows choice. I say don’t believe the rhetoric. Privatization allows small interest groups to push their agendas. Believe it or not, they may not actually be concerned about your child’s education. Most are worried about the dollar it puts in their pockets.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on Texas Businessman Bill Hammond. He has a great deal to say about public education being less than quality and questioning school funding. If you look carefully, he just puts the same, tired story in multiple newspapers around the state. He repeatedly tweets broken links that are supposed to provide evidence and he won’t respond to an opposing viewpoint. He doesn’t have answers. I doubt he’s been to a public school recently (even though I’ve invited him to mine!). Otherwise, he would understand the rest of the story. Much more of his communication is about business and money. If you ask me, this isn’t someone who cares about the quality of education for future generations. He cares about his profit margins and funding for his special interests. If less money goes into education, he might get more funding for his projects. His arguments are unsubstantiated propaganda used as a scare tactic to evoke fear in the middle-class American. Instead of questioning his motives, people extend trust.  I mean, why wouldn’t he want what is best for our children, right? Hmmm.

Here’s why a system solely based on privatization of schools won’t make the United States education system better:

  • The money will decide. In public education, voters have a say. They elect their officials. They vote for or against educational laws. They have a voice into curriculum and policy through input sessions. If they take the time to speak up, education can reflect community values. It’s like I tell my own children,
    This may or may not be true. It is something to consider to ensure that it doesn’t become the reality.
    when you pay your way, you get to decide when, where and how to do things. Personally, I’m not ready to give all that power over to someone else so that they will foot the bill. Their values likely represent a small population. I want the power of input, not an absolute monarchy controlled by the ones with the most money. Look at how our voters are reversing their views on how we are using standardized testing.  It’s because the average American has some say into what they value.
  • Privatization will cause more division rather than unify our community. The root cause of education issues in America isn’t schools. It is a different value system amongst different groups including their views of schools. Sometimes families from poverty haven’t experienced personal success in schools. Lack of personal success tied to schools can result in them not seeing the value of education, but rather a task that has to be completed. If they don’t value education, they aren’t likely to take up an offer to move to a different school, even if the one they attend is not the best. If someone is trying to survive poverty, their biggest focus is just that, survival. If the only groups that take advantage of vouchers and school choice are those not living in poverty, it means an exodus of the middle class and greater socio-economic division. When people feel disenfranchised, they get angry. They feel the rest of the world doesn’t see them as people, so they have nothing to lose. I believe if you look at any situation of violence against communities, whether it be school shootings or city riots, it was because someone felt treated as less than human. When that happened, they reached their breaking point, and they acted “less than human.” Can we afford to take this risk?
  • There is no proof privatization solves the problems facing education. Private schools pick and choose their students. They often aren’t held accountable to the full extent of education law. Educating a diverse community is much more challenging than a school where you have the ability to say “you are not meeting our standards, so you’ll need to look elsewhere.”  What happens to those considered by private schools to be “substandard?” Do they get no education? Are they put into one school of misfits?  If that seems like a good alternative, please reread bullet number two.

It’s time to solve problems of education at their core and stop blaming public education. No, it’s not perfect, but the number of schools that are doing great things far outweighs those that are struggling. Even when you see a school deemed “unacceptable” by standardized testing, you should look deeper than the numbers. Are they growing? Is there another issue that needs to be addressed in the community before instruction can take place? Most school districts already offer open enrollment and choice.  Has it solved the problem or made it worse?

Public schools are doing great things for students. They are standing up against one-size fits all education. Teachers are becoming innovative in their practice to prepare students for a future that is undoubtedly beyond what our minds can conceive. They don’t do it for themselves, money, or personal fame. They do it because it is what is right. We have always been told we shape the future. That’s what we are trying to do. We want the future for everyone to be better than it was yesterday.

I’m not opposed to private schools, charter schools, religious-based schools or home schools. I believe every child deserves a free and appropriate public education, and you have the right to choose an alternative and pay for it if that meets your needs. Just don’t trash an entire system with propaganda for self-serving goals that likely aren’t based on whether the education system is working or not. One-size fits all judgments can’t be one hundred percent accurate and don’t solve the real issue. If we work together to make public education a priority and support our schools, it is the most viable solution for everyone, not just a privileged few. The end result of a strong public educational system is diverse groups of people becoming literate problem solvers who know how to get along and respect each other in our society.