Senior Project

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In Senior Project, students explore questions that drive societal trends.

-by Jack M. Jose

Each spring, Senior Project Night is a proud night at Gamble Montessori. The school becomes the very public arena where our seniors’ projects, started a full year earlier, are seen in their entirety for the first time. Nervous students, in their Sunday best clothing, circle their tables and wring their hands, making small talk with their parents and mentors as the time arrives and space fills with curious guests. Senior Project Night is easily summed up, but difficult to fully understand. It is not just an artifact of a student’s research, or a short speech, but the culmination of years of education.  Students are really presenting themselves as fully prepared for the world beyond high school.

The recent full-length documentary film Most Likely to Succeed drew a lot of attention in the education world in early 2016 by shining a spotlight on a charter school with a unique structure. The movie portrayed High Tech High in San Diego as a nearly utopian vision of future-school, where students worked continuously throughout the year on a major culminating project.

The movie attracted a cult-like following among fans of hand-on school, including Montessori schools.  Groups of educators planned private screenings, wrote blogs, and posted rave reviews to Facebook that sometimes admittedly were posted before the authors even saw the movie. I was also caught up in the interest in the movie. I attended a screening at Xavier University in Cincinnati as part of their Montessori Lab School program in partnership with Cincinnati Public Schools.

The movie itself, however, was not really the main draw for educators like me. In fact, the film was prone to hyperbole and to overselling the possibility of this kind of future school sweeping the nation. At one point one of the protagonists speculates about the significance of the completion of his project by saying, “It will be the best day of my life.” As a member of the audience in a well-made documentary, it is true that I felt his excitement and agony. However, this felt a bit oversold.  Perhaps what had happened was life changing for him. This sense was heightened by his efforts being made public for all to see. The effort of completing this year-long project would have been an important event for this young man even without a documentarian filming his progress.

The primary attraction for most of us was that Most Likely to Succeed, by drawing attention to project-based learning, had the opportunity to change even more lives by helping to explain the impact that project-based learning can have on individual students.

The reality is, asking students to complete a major capstone project is not the provenance of some utopian future school. Project-based learning is not a new fad set to sweep the nation. Many schools have been doing a version of this for years, Gamble Montessori and our sister school, Clark Montessori, included. The work for senior project begins at the end of the junior year and ends on this night in May, just days before graduation.

Mary*, from the Gamble class of 2015, was a reserved student, who worked hard and was satisfied with the grades she received. She was well liked by her peers, but she was unlikely to speak up in a group larger than 2 or 3 of her close friends. When I first met her, she was transferring to Gamble Montessori from another local high school renowned for its academic rigor. Her initial reaction as I approached was to step behind her mother. She was not exactly shy, but rather, wary. Her academic and personal transformation while at Gamble was completely embodied in her senior project, which was an investigation of food production practices, food labeling laws, and the forces that drive our food consumption. She called it, simply, “The Ethics of Eating.”

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An exploration of the psychology of monogamy.

When I asked her in August of 2016 to describe a bit of her senior project experience, Mary’s response was effusive, more than a page and a half of single-spaced written commentary in a Word document. It was clear that it made a huge impact on her, and she was excited to talk about it.

Senior Project starts in the spring of the junior year, with students doing interest inventories and investigating questions in areas that spark their passions. They travel to the Cincinnati Public Library Main Branch and learn the basics of researching from the expert research librarians. While there, they locate several sources of information and start the process of reading the research and taking careful notes over the summer. The senior team provides support days periodically during that summer so students who are struggling can get back on the right path. Students have chosen a mind-bending range of topics, from fuel-efficient cars, prostitution in Cincinnati, animal welfare laws, and the existence of angels. Students must reach out to local experts in the field and find someone willing to mentor them, or at least to provide guidance showing that the student’s work was contributing to the larger conversation in that field.

The mentors have included the following:

  • Music Therapist from Melodic Connections
  • Attorney at Ohio Innocence Project
  • Chemical Dependency Counselor
  • African Drum Teacher
  • Children’s Transgender Clinic Social Worker
  • FBI Agent in Gang Task Force
  • Epidemiologist and former Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa
  • Sex Crimes Detective
  • Miami University Women’s Studies Professor
  • Professional photographer Charles Peterson
  • Local Business Owners
  • Local Activists from Black Lives Matter and other organizations

When the school year starts, the seniors’ schedule provides an additional bell that abuts their English and social studies bells but which is used primarily for senior project work. Mary explains the intense workload this way:

I personally spent so many hours on reading parts of books, whole books, articles, magazines, and blog posts.  I also watched documentary after documentary.  I watched every single one that was on Netflix (and there were surprisingly a lot) and then I watched more.  I loved my topic so it was easy to waste away a lot of hours digging deeper into the subject.  It is impossible to calculate how many hours I studied by myself but it was a lot.  The classroom provided 5 hours of work time each week and that was every week for most of the entire year … It took me about 15 hours to put my video together after I got all of the footage.  The footage happened on several different days and was then later combined into the final video at the end of the school year.  Talking to my mentor took up a lot of time too.  Basically, this project is very time consuming but that was expected and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Everything we do at Gamble should be aligned around creating this love of learning in a student. We set out to make a school that was safe for students – not just physically safe, but safe for them emotionally and educationally. This statement from a student expresses a sentiment that can never be measured on a standardized test. This is our Super Bowl win.  I hear in there the joy of learning. I hear her talking of hours spent happily exploring a fascinating idea. The Socratic method  of asking questions and digging ever deeper for answers drew her in, engaged her curiosity, and created a deep passion for a topic. Within that, we taught her the skills to follow future ideas that capture her attention. This is what every parent hopes for their child to experience at school – a passion for learning.

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An in-depth look at making America’s favorite possession – our cars – even better.

How was senior project different from other work she had done in school?

I had to contact professionals and ask for help, I had to talk face to face with strangers, I learned how to take advice from constructive criticisms and not be offended, and I had to kindly and intellectually retaliate to people who were challenging my ideas.  I think the most outstanding thing about senior project though, was that by the end I felt that it had made me a more confident, outgoing, and educated individual; and the best part was that I achieved all of that studying something I was passionate about.

Above are the words of scientific discourse, of intellectual engagement, the words of a person who is engaged in the pursuit of knowledge for the public good. To seek out ideas that challenge your current thinking is the heart of a strong and confident education. This is the “ready man” as described by Sir Francis Bacon and further explored by Samuel Johnson, who both assert that the “ready man” – the educated man ready to engage in leadership and intellectual discourse in his community – is made by conversation.

Challenges confront the students throughout the year. Occasionally a student will lose the passion for a topic, proclaiming it boring, or lose the thread of an argument. This often means they think they have run out of areas to research. Through a conference with his teachers, he will have to decide whether to revise the question, start over, or struggle through the roadblock. This is akin to a dead end in scientific inquiry, and the answer depends on the calendar and the individual. Is there time to start over? Is there any guarantee that the replacement question will prove more fruitful?

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A student demonstrates how he modified his audio system.

The senior team of teachers provides academic support in classes with a curriculum that overlaps some of the same ideas that students are exploring. Students writing about race find readings in psychology class that work as evidence for their research. (On the playground at lunch, older students will inevitably respond to statements about a person’s race with the quote, “Race is a social construct!”) Additionally, standard research format is taught and reinforced. One of our 2016 graduates, Syirra Roberts, reported to me that her freshman psychology teacher pulled her aside after three weeks of class and asked which high school Syirra had attended. Her test scores and classroom responses revealed a deep understanding of the topics being discussed, and her professor asked her to pass on his respect to her high school psychology teacher.

In thinking about Mary’s zeal for her topic when she delivered her speech, one could argue she put up a good show for her final grade. Was that passion real? My conversation with her occurred more than a year after graduation. Students often will tell the “whole truth” after a year away, feeling no need to dissemble in order to get a good grade or not hurt someone’s feelings. I think the answer is this: Embedded among Mary’s responses was this invitation extended to me: “If you haven’t ventured into answering the questions you have about where your food comes from (or if you don’t have questions but don’t consider yourself to be someone who knows much about the food industry) I highly encourage you to do so.  It is something that is so important and there are so many things that people don’t know that they should.” The passion is real. A year later, Mary has become an advocate for others to learn more about the food process.

I learned how to take advice … and not be offended, and I had to kindly and intellectually retaliate to people who were challenging my ideas.

This could just be an extended research paper, except for Senior Project Night. Each spring, mid-May, the seniors do not merely turn in the work to a teacher to anticipate a grade. Instead, they present their work to the community. Spread throughout the gym, library, and some adjacent classrooms, each senior commandeers a table and displays his or her work. There are required elements: a visual presentation showing what they learned, a research paper, a persuasive component, a spoken summary of their work along with the ability to respond to questions about their topic, and a service requirement. Students often display some of the reference material they cited, especially books they bought. Students are required to produce something that demonstrates a deeper understanding of what they have learned.  Sometimes it is a pamphlet providing important information about their topic, or it is information about a dog the student adopted and nursed back to health at a local shelter or in their own home.

The seniors’ parents are present, as are their mentors. Nearly the entire faculty drops by, as do parents from past years, and parents of younger students who are curious about the event. Dozens of students, especially juniors, make a point of attending. These guests are invited to not only sign in at each table, but also to offer feedback; this feedback then helps form a portion of the student’s final assessment.

This brings us back to that night. Students in their formal clothes, young men pulling at their collars and adjusting their ties, young ladies in dresses too formal for the typical school day. All nervously walking through the rooms, gathering the last of their materials, moving tables into place, calling a favorite aunt to give last-minute parking advice. And then it is show time.

Our seniors present their work in charts and graphs, pamphlets, tri-fold boards and every conceivable format. One year a student dressed in a yellow haz-mat suit, emerging sweaty but proud at the end of the evening. Students bring old tires and photographs. There is music and laughter, and quiet discussions as adults are confronted with the difficult topics tackled by their children. These questions have included the following:

  • Why is it that exotic dance/neo-burlesque, which is one of the top forms of entertainment in the world, is looked at as a degrading and/or a morally reprehensible profession for the women working in it?
  • When should transgender children transition socially and physically?
  • How does a mother’s age, mental state and lifestyle choices while pregnant affect how a baby develops in the first 6-8 weeks of life?
  • Is the death penalty an ethical punishment that reflects society’s views?
  • Why is it that people are unfairly treated based on the stigma of HIV/Aids?
  • Is ISIS really following Islamic Ideology?
  • Why do humans feel the need to be in a monogamous relationship?

Mary’s final presentation table included a crock pot of vegetarian chili (which was delicious and indistinguishable from traditional meat chili), a video of her presenting her findings, and a second video of “man on the street interviews” in downtown Cincinnati.

That’s right, the same girl who stepped behind her mother when it was time to meet her potential new principal, had gained the confidence to stop strangers on the street, ask them questions about the food they ate, and to provide on-the-spot answers while being videotaped. And here, on Senior Project Night, she confidently answered questions from every person who approached her table.

There is a moment during each Senior Project Night where I find myself drawn away from the tables and the students. I stand silent at a distance in each place our students are presenting; first in the gym, then in the library, and then in the large classroom. I allow myself to examine the whole scene in front of me as one picture. I take a long, deep breath. In this hive of activity, I hold each student momentarily in my gaze. I remember their arrival as timid 7th graders, or perhaps as anxious and wary high schoolers. I reflect on their struggles, and I note that, without exception, this night is a victory for each of them. Tonight they display the work that has been for them the hardest thing they ever imagined doing. Many admit to not believing they could do it at all. Here they are, each of them. Beautiful, proud, accomplished. I stop to see them as they are in this moment, resplendent and triumphant.

I often call moments like these “the teacher’s real payday,” and these are enough to fill the soul.

 

*Student’s name used with permission.

What Is Teacher Leadership?

Change is hard. All sorts of change. Not just the pumpkin spice flavored everything showing up in bakeries and coffee shops each fall – though that is also difficult – but change in general.

A new route to school. A child graduated and off to college. A new evaluation system.

All of these changes make life subtly different. However, even when the changes make life incrementally better, the changes themselves can be hard.

Perhaps you have read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, or one of dozens of other recent best-selling books about making significant changes in your life. These books focus on the impressive power of habit to make or break your efforts to excel in what you do. While the power of habit is a sort of current in the ocean of your life, these books insist that you can make changes that seem to force the tide your way.

However, there may still be an undercurrent which is not always flowing in the intended direction.

In the summer of 2015, I had the good fortune to take a class taught by Robert Kegan, co-author of Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. The premise behind this course and his life-changing book is that people have a natural defense against making changes. It is not just that people do not like or even want to make change, it is that their mind conspires against that change in important ways.

How powerful is this immunity to change? Perhaps as powerful as the body’s own immune system. A survey of heart patients directed to make life-saving changes in their diet and exercise revealed that only one in seven successfully did so.

One in seven. 14%. Life-saving change.

So this year in your classroom likely started off with some big promises for yourself. More timely return of graded work? More comments, fewer final scores? Fewer discipline referrals? A ratio of positive to corrective comments of 4:1?

In Cincinnati Public School we are already headed into our fourth week of instruction as this Labor Day weekend winds down. Now is the time when that habit can either take hold or it can die a neglected, lonely death.

Let’s give it a boost.

Teachers and principals must accept the responsibility for changing themselves, and must be open to that change. After all, your self is the part most directly in your own control. No matter how much one complains, organizations and societies do not simply reform themselves to meet the needs of those who raise concerns.

Everyone exhibits what Robert Kegan and his co-author Lisa Laskow Lahey named an “immunity to change”, where they unconsciously try to preserve the status quo, even if they are outwardly unhappy with it.

Kegan asserts that “[c]ollectivities – work teams, leadership groups, departmental units, whole organizations – also unknowingly protect themselves from making the very changes they most desire.”[1] It is precisely this tendency in groups, and in individuals, that leaders must learn to defend against. If even the most sought-after change a person wants to make, such as losing weight to avoid dying of heart disease, is subject to a fierce defense from internal self-sabotage, then something as superficial as your new grading policy does not stand a chance.

But this is not a hopeless situation.

The most important step here is to make internal adaptations to defeat the immunity. Teachers who wish to change their classroom, their school, or even to affect a specific change in the habits and practices of an individual student, must determine their place in the current set of habits, and make intentional change.

Then we must identify what it is we are doing that stands in the way of the thing we want to do. That is, you must identify your hidden competing commitments.

Perhaps you have made one of the commitments above, but you find yourself taking on several new challenges as the year starts. Suddenly your ability to make comments on every paper the way you planned is encroached upon by the time you are spending on your new projects.

Why do you do this? Why do you take on so many projects? Maybe you want to be seen as helpful, and a leader in the school. This is a noble goal, and a common one.

So, maybe your hidden commitment to be helpful to everyone is now in competition with your commitment to better serve your students’ progress with commentary on their papers.

What can you do about this?

Well, you have already taken a difficult step, you have identified the hidden competing commitment. Now decipher why that commitment is in competition. What are the big assumptions that lie beneath your willingness to overcommit? Perhaps you believe that if you stop being valuable to others, you will lose your role in the school, or lose your peers’ respect? Or perhaps by not getting things done, and telling people no, you will appear to be superficial and worried only about yourself.

Teachers tell their students every day to be ready, willing, and able to change themselves. This act of self-reinvention is scary, and the teacher must be willing to lead and model this change. If you have identified your commitment, what you are doing instead, the hidden competing commitment, and the big assumptions, you have all the information you need to make the significant change.

And now you must enlist those around you to help you make that change. This interdependence is important because in order to make substantive change, we must empower each other to help us get better at what we do. We cannot do it all by ourselves.

Teachers understand the unique needs, challenges, and fears of the profession in a way that no one else can. Who better to offer advice and support to a teacher, than a teacher? Who better to offer correction and redirection? A peer can offer advice without it being evaluative. A peer can offer advice from the perspective of having the same demands on their own time and energy. A trusted peer can listen to fears and flaws without judgement, and help balance the stresses of personal and professional life. There are many formal and informal ways for teachers to step up and provide for each other the leadership that is needed in any situation.

Seek informal mentors

One teacher, wary of placing additional stress on others, and not wanting to be seen as bothersome for asking too many questions, “adopted” a set of informal mentors. If she saw someone who had a strength in organization, she observed them closely, sometimes asking specific questions about their rationale for doing things a certain way, other times merely co-opting a certain structure or behavior that seemed effective.

Another teacher, struggling with the weight of the many roles he had taken on in the school, purposely went to the principal to ask for advice on being organized. This particular tactic, seeking out mentorship from other leaders including administration, can serve multiple purposes. First, it alerts administration to the teacher’s desire for self-improvement. Second, the leader likely has some good advice on managing the tasks and the work, which can be incorporated to lighten the burden. Third, it allows for informal conversations to reveal which work is most valued and to build the relationships that help form any successful community.

 

Intentionally mentor others

Draw one person under your wing by letting them know you are available for questions, asking direct questions about specific aspects of the work, and getting involved in their teaching. Show them around the building. Advocate for them to get preferable lunch times or a more favorable schedule.

Perhaps more importantly, offer to help with a specific task. Are they grading an assignment? Offer to do half. Share a rubric or a procedure for how this work gets handled efficiently in another classroom.

The reality is that mentorship creates teamwork, and teamwork has an indescribably powerful effect on one’s work efficacy and overall feeling of satisfaction. Working with them side by side – to hang curtains, or sort out schoolbooks, or to move a heavy desk when the custodian is difficult to locate – helps make everyone’s load lighter.

 

Join or create a formal mentoring program

One teacher leader strongly advocated to create a mentoring process that would do three things: provide guidance on the basic pieces of working in the building, assist with understanding the processes used for handling a variety of situations, and include a deep sharing of the school culture. 

After weeks of discussing potential approaches to this work and looking for viable models for how to do it, school representatives met with Brian Cundiff, Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s, a prominent local pizza chain to discuss their “Onboarding” process.

LaRosa’s makes pizza. Gamble Montessori educates children. What could possibly be learned?

As it turns out, quite a lot. LaRosa’s had developed a thoughtful process for ensuring that every employee understood what the company was about. A number of statements stood out during that meeting. Mr. Cundiff emphasized that the employer has a responsibility to grow team members, and you need to train every person in your system in order to ensure maintenance of the culture you are trying to establish. Additionally, the best teachers are your peers. The person taking orders at the table next to you is able to provide support, modeling, and even polite correction in a way that a manager cannot.  Finally, in order to articulate what needs to be communicated about your culture, look back at your vision statement and be a storyteller.

At Gamble, we made sure to include scheduled 1:1 check-ins between the mentor and mentee allow for the pair to problem-solve concerns and for the veteran to provide encouragement and support. Intentionally setting aside time for this work means that a new teacher does not have to feel as if they are imposing when they ask a question that is complicated to answer.  It removes the stigma of being the one who asks too many questions, or the feeling of responsibility for having “wasted” someone else’s time. This is time well spent.

 

Work with your team to create PLCs

At every school, there are additional ways for teachers to take on leadership with or without the support of administration. School teams regularly form professional learning communities, or PLCs, as described over dozens of years by Richard DuFour. The work of this PLC can be called many things, such as a 90 day plan or a turnaround plan, and can be incorporated in personal or professional growth plans, school One Plans, or nationally required improvement plans associated with Title I grants.

Whatever it is called, the true goal of a PLC is to identify a common problem directly related to student learning and solve it as a team. The process to work toward change, and hold one another publicly accountable for it, is exhaustively described in other resources, but it merits a quick summary here.

The team identifies an area related to student learning outcomes where the results are poor, inconsistent with other scores across the building or some larger area, or simply could be better. This could relate to test scores, embodiment of the school’s core values, or visible indicators of academic success such as grades.

Then the team drills down to find the details. What exactly is the measure of these suboptimal results?

Research is the crucial next step. This is where PLCs differ from typical team solutions. Often teams of teachers get together to solve a problem and the depth of their knowledge comes from their own experience. It may sound like, “At my old school we …” This is an attractive song, like sirens on the rocky shores. Do not be lured in.

Past practice does not mean best practice. Even the most veteran teacher finds their knowledge limited by their own narrow scope of professional experience. Seeking outside sources for ideas, including books, scholarly articles in professional publications, and even reading teaching blogs by teachers in the same subject or age band, allows the team to discuss and evaluate a wide array of possible solutions.

Armed with new knowledge, the team reviews possibilities and decides on a way forward. Then they collectively implement it for the indicated period of time. This typically provides for a midyear check-in to evaluate progress, and an end-of-year final review.

If the intervention worked, the team keeps it and adds it to their repertoire. They may even seek to apply this approach to other subjects, classes, or situations if it is readily transferrable.

Or maybe the team does not solve anything. Maybe the data reveals that they did not impact the problem. This is information too. Sometimes the strategy the team believed was most likely to impact the problem has no effect at all. This too is data, and “no effect” is not failure. The only failure is not to try something different in order to impact the outcome.

Teams that use the PLC approach do not solve all of their problems all at once. They do, however, solve their most pressing problem. More importantly, perhaps, they solve the problem together, and build capacity and resources for solving future problems together. This provides a rich and satisfying work experience and improves outcomes.

 

Individual or paired skill building

Another way teachers can gain the competencies they need to feel successful is through individual or paired skill building and self-study. Recently, I saw a presentation by Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure is On. I found the presentation eye-opening. Knowing that Krista was intentionally seeking out ways to develop herself professionally, I suggested that we read the book together. We carved out time to read the book, discuss it, and to implement the ideas.

Craig’s premise is that a critical factor for teams is the development of “conversational capacity” – or as he describes it, “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.”

He describes this as being in the conversational “sweet spot” – that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and curiosity are in balance. But he also cautions that, “[w]hile it’s easy to remain balanced when talking about routine and comfortable issues, when a difficult subject hits the table, our tendency is to move out of the sweet spot toward the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. Some people shut down. Others heat up.”[2]

Perhaps your school has seen recent examples of this?

Krista and I worked on these ideas together over the course of the year, applying the ideas to specific situations in our own leadership and in the building and thinking about how to improve our own practices to match the advice in the book. Along the way, we reached out to Craig, the author, and engaged him in our discussion, even providing him some material he said was useful for his follow-up book.

There were mixed results, as happens in the implementation of new practices and the development of new skills. The important part was that they were engaged in a professional practice of intentional improvement.

 

Today, teacher burnout is an existential threat to public schools. In Kansas they are having trouble hiring enough teachers because of the triple-whammy of retirement, working age teachers leaving the profession, and low salaries failing to attract new teachers. It is tempting to think that tucking into a fetal position in your classroom is the answer. Or to believe that what the new teacher down the hall really needs is a good laugh and a distraction from his work so he won’t appear so bothered.

This type of thinking suggests that if you can just spend enough time distracted from your work, then somehow work will be better. That is demonstrably untrue.

What this really does is leave the work undone, to be completed in less time, likely in a rush, and with less attention to quality. This means that lesson plans, feedback on grading, and ultimately student academic growth is set aside in the service of buoying a teacher’s mood.

That is an upside down view of the role of schools.

What really makes people feel better at work is a sense that they are accomplishing the work with a high level of skill, and that they are achieving results. Even if it is very hard work, and time consuming, positive outcomes for students are a powerful mood booster.

The solution to better job satisfaction for all, then, is to take a leadership role in the school and help pick up one of the important pieces of the larger work. Share the load with someone. Work at their side. Gain the capacity to do more, and to do the existing work more effectively.

Become a leader.

 

[1] Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009), 87.

[2] Craig Weber, Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is on (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013), 15.

 

You Never Know Where You Will Find Angels

This post was originally published on 9/19/16; however it reflects the commonality of our fall camp experience each year.  This year our camping trip takes place the weeks of 8/28 and 9/5.  In order for every student to participate, we are actively seeking donations for student scholarships.  If you are interested in helping, please contact me at taylokr@cps-k12.org

 

We say that the best learning is experiential. We say that it’s critical to take students out of the classroom, so they can truly understand the implications of the work.

What if I told you that this was true for teachers as well?

Fall camp is always remarkable, and I have written about it previously.  Each year, this camping experience provides many stories about witnessing the best in our students, and somehow the themes of these stories are always the same – inclusivity, belonging, helpfulness, kindness, generosity, challenge, perseverance, and leadership. While these are things that are difficult to teach in the classroom, they are lessons that seem to occur spontaneously at camp.

I knew this already. I knew that camp inspires students to rise to challenges. I knew that camp provides teachers with the opportunity to witness strengths in students that don’t appear in the classroom. But, for the first time this year, camp opened my eyes to something new. This year, camp taught me about poverty.

Read moreYou Never Know Where You Will Find Angels

Back to School: The Prepared Environment

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year …”

If, when you hear this you begin singing, “with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer,” then you are not a teacher.

Staples has ruined this traditional Christmas carol for teachers forever.  I can nearly guarantee that every teacher hears the next line as “They’re going back!”

Back to School that is.

Ahhh, back to school.  A time of year fraught with emotion for students and teachers alike.  Here in Ohio, the back to school advertising frenzy begins on July 5th.  Yes, July 5th – the day after Independence Day.

We’re not even quite halfway through summer vacation when we are told to start gearing up for the return to school.

This is particularly cruel as I’m not sure a teacher exists who doesn’t experience back to school nightmares.  These are quintessential anxiety dreams that generally involve being late to class or unprepared – no lesson plan, no attendance list, no materials, etc.  In the really terrifying versions of these nightmares, the teacher is also naked – talk about waking up in a cold sweat!

Back to School is such a tumultuous time of year.  Although many decades have transpired since the long summer days of my childhood, they still evoke powerful memories, and when I think of the end of summer, the loss I feel is reminiscent of those summers:

Long afternoons that melted into evenings where it stayed light until 9:30 — which was about when our parents started calling us to come inside,

Carefree summer days when we held contests to see who could stand barefoot on the hot asphalt the longest,

Evenings spent catching lightning bugs in a jar that we kept by our bedsides overnight,

Even the air was redolent with exuberance —  full of the sounds of cicadas by day and crickets by night.

This romanticization is perhaps equaled only by my powerful memories of the first days of school each fall:

The smell of fresh floor wax that seems to be the same in school buildings everywhere,

The anxiety and excitement of meeting a new teacher and entering a new classroom,

The thrill of a full set of brand-new school supplies,

The joy of seeing your name carefully written on a sticker on your desk, perhaps accompanied by a number line whose ends had not yet started to curl up.

That classroom was waiting for you.  Waiting expectantly full of optimism and hope of a new beginning, a fresh start.

It was these nostalgic first day of school images that flashed through my mind when, this summer, I came across these words written on a Facebook page of a teacher group I belong to:

“Has anyone done ‘work to rule’ at the start of school?  I’m the VP of our union.  Need ideas to motivate elementary teachers to not set up classrooms before school starts.  Looking for ideas of how to survive the first day in boxes, success stories or ways to start school with a blank slate.”

“Work to rule,” meaning only do what is explicitly stated in the contract – nothing more.

“Work to rule,” meaning that if you aren’t directly paid for time spent setting up your classroom, then don’t set it up.

I have always been a fiercely proud union member.  I believe in the importance of unions, and have served in various union roles throughout my career.  But this statement left me feeling sad and embarrassed and disappointed all at once.

To be fair, the person who posted this does not belong to my local union and doesn’t even live in my state.  I know that there are teachers elsewhere who are struggling with low wages and excessive requirements that are far beyond anything that I have ever had to deal with.  I am slow to judge because there may be extenuating circumstances, of which I am unaware, that require such drastic action.

What bothered me perhaps more than the post itself was that within just a few hours, this statement had 141 comments from teachers all around the country, most of which were supportive of this strategy.

I simply can’t get past my mental image of the children who walk into a classroom that hasn’t been prepared.  A classroom where materials are still in boxes.  A classroom that is simply not ready for the students’ arrival.

A classroom like that cannot possibly evoke the expectant hope and optimism that I remember so vividly from my own days as a student.

Not only does this lack of a prepared environment do the students a disservice, it does a terrible disservice to the teacher of that classroom as well, for an unstructured, unwelcoming start of the school year bodes ill for the months that follow.

Starting the school year off on the right foot is critically important, and having a well-prepared classroom environment is a major contributing factor for this.  Every classroom is unique in how it is set up, and there are many right ways.  Each teacher spends countless hours getting it just the way he or she wants it, with every item carefully in place prior to the ringing of that bell that marks the initiation of a new school year.

There is reason to believe that this intentional and thoughtful classroom design has significant benefits.  A recent study funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council found that 16% of the positive or negative variations in student learning outcomes could be attributed to the physical characteristics of the classroom.[1]  Of this, 25% of these achievement differences were attributed to individualization and flexibility in the environment, and another 25% was linked to an appropriate level of stimulation (complexity and color) in the classroom.[2]  This is good news as these are elements of the classroom that are completely within a teacher’s control.

The results of this study indicate that students learn better in classrooms where there are a variety of available learning spaces and where student influence is observable through displays of work and student-created decorative elements.[3]

Additionally visual stimulation should be neither too high nor too low.  Décor should be limited to approximately 50-75% of wall space.  Calming background colors with the use of complementary or bright colors as accents was found to be most effective.[4]

Creating a classroom best-designed for learning is a relatively simple and effective way to make teaching a little bit easier.  The short-term investment of time, effort, and money has long-term gains.

Whether your school year is yet to begin or whether you have already done most of the heavy lifting of classroom preparation, it is important to examine the design of your classroom to ensure that it best meets your needs and those of your students.

And, yes, I know that for many of us our rooms are overcrowded, our furnishings shoddy, and the extra touches that create a welcoming atmosphere typically must be paid for out of our own pockets.

Is this fair?  No, of course not.  But it is the reality for many, perhaps most, of us.  Consider the number of hours each day that you and your students will spend in your classroom.  Generally, this amounts to about 50% of one’s waking hours.  Making that space more pleasant is worth it for all parties involved.

As part of my research for this post, I perused the book What’s in Your Space:  5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design.  It’s a drool-worthy book – sharing images of a high-end, high-tech, student-centered new construction.

The pictures in that book look nothing like what exists in most school buildings.

As a result, I initially set the book aside as an impossible ideal, but then I returned to it, turning directly to the section titled, “Find Ways to Make This Shift Even When Budgets are Tight.”

I found this important message, “Only a handful of schools in the world have an unlimited budget with which to redesign learning space.  Educators with small budgets can begin with one corner of a classroom.”[5]

Consider your classroom.  Which corner do you want to start with?

Spend some time mentally re-visiting how last year went.  Is there an area in your room that felt congested?  Or cluttered?  A space in which students tended to be off-task or at loose ends?  Or perhaps an area that students intentionally sought out for silent work or regrouping that you would like to make more inviting.

Begin with one of these spaces.

Consider adding lamps, plants, a rug, or different seating options.  If routines or procedures were an issue, think about what you can design to help make this more structured.

There are infinite ways to make classrooms more inviting, more comfortable, or more functional.  Here are a few of my favorites provide by teachers at Gamble Montessori to help you get the creative juices flowing.

(Tremendous thanks to Krista Mertens, Olivia Schafer, Tori Pinciotti, and Beau Wheatley for inviting me into their classrooms at Gamble and allowing me to take photographs of their beautifully designed spaces.)

A place for everything and everything in its place

If clutter or organization is a concern in your classroom, consider purchasing simple containers and labeling them.

A student supply center. This teacher has two sets of these –each one assigned for use by 4 tables of students.

 

A simple way to provide easy access to colored pencils. A student job can be ensuring correct placement of pencils at the end of each day.

 

Materials to support classroom procedures

If you had procedures, such as tardiness protocols or classroom jobs that didn’t work so well last year, think about materials you could design that would better support and reinforce your expectations.

A structure for documenting, problem-solving, and holding students accountable for being tardy to class.

 

Classroom jobs support students in being responsible for care of the environment. Clear routines and procedures are essential for this to function well.

 

Morning meeting structures to build community and promote classroom cohesion

If you struggled to develop a positive classroom culture, you may benefit from adding a well-structured daily or weekly meeting to your routines.

A beautifully set morning meeting table includes all necessary supplies.

 

Clearly defined morning meeting leadership roles with individual clipboards for ease of use.

 

Nontraditional student work areas

If you found that students struggled with focus and engagement, consider creating student-friendly work spaces that may look very different from the standard desks and chairs.

The creation of beautiful reading nooks emphasizes the joy that can be found in reading for pleasure.

 

Here is a different type of reading corner. In both photos, notice the lighting elements.

 

Many students like the option of working on the floor as it allows them greater movement and more choices of position.

 

A standard table can easily be converted to a floor work space by removing a portion of the legs.

 

Students may discover work spaces that you had never even considered!

 

There are innumerable ways to design a beautiful and functional prepared space for student learning.  However, to do so takes significant time.  Ideally, teachers would get paid for this time; the reality is that few of us do.

So, yes, advocate for more paid time to prepare your classroom.  Advocate for professional development days to be moved to later in the year to allow for more time for classroom set up in the critical days just before the start of the year.  Advocate for getting reimbursed for the materials you have to purchase out of pocket to beautify your space.  (That $250 federal income tax credit doesn’t go very far!)

But to leave your classroom unprepared for the arrival of students on that first day is a set up for failure.  Students are already worried and anxious about the changes that lie ahead.  Quite frankly, so are most teachers.  It helps everyone to begin that pivotal day in a space that reflects readiness of the exciting journey that you and your class are about to embark upon together.

Your students are worth it.  So are you.

 

[1] Lynch, Matthew. “Study Finds That Well-Designed Classrooms Boost Student Success.” The Edvocate. May 10, 2016. Accessed August 02, 2017. http://www.theedadvocate.org/study-finds-that-well-designed-classrooms-boost-student-success/.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Carter, Dwight, Gary Sebach, and Mark White.What’s In Your Space?Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2016.

 

Grading to Encourage Effort

The wisest thing I have ever heard a person say about grading came from my friend and sometimes co-worker Barb Scholtz. A long-time teacher of math and English and life, she taught my son in middle school at Clark Montessori.  It was years later, in her role as a teacher educator, that she worked with a team of teachers who were doing an independent PD on differentiation at Gamble. (Read more about that here.) Here she asked the basic question that shook my thinking about failing grades. “If a child is learning, how can they be failing?”

This is more than a question. It is a revelation. We have to move past thinking of a grade in a gradebook as immutable truth, an unswayable bedrock fact which must be reported.

images-1This article assumes you are in a situation where you are required to report a single letter grade, and perhaps a percentage, to sum up 10 weeks’ worth of effort, practice, improvement, success and failure on a multitude of social and academic skills. I’m sorry about your situation. I’m here to help.

There appear to be two philosophies among teachers when discussing grading. One camp asserts that grading is a time-consuming but relatively simple process – you set up your gradebook, assign different point totals for different types of assignments, set up weighting or assign more points to emphasize the more important work, and average it all out at the end of the quarter. The other camp suggests that grading is a laborious and challenging activity, where you try to find ways for students who are improving to demonstrate that growth without becoming discouraged or complacent, and the rules seem arbitrary so you change them relatively often to try and better match the growth you see in your students.

It is a fair bet that those of you who read this blog are not in the “grading is easy” camp.

I am not here to convince you that it is, though my message is simple: The best thing you can accomplish with a grade is to keep a student invested in her education. But how?

Read moreGrading to Encourage Effort

Creating Change: Yes, We Can!

An education for a year for sixteen girls in underprivileged countries.

 My students made that happen, and they did so much more.

As teachers, we are taught to “begin with the end in mind.” When planning any unit, we are told to start with the intended learning outcomes.  Design the assessment first, and then teach students what they need to know.

But sometimes, that’s just not how it goes …

And on this occasion, if I had begun with my anticipated outcome in mind, I would have sold my students’ determination, passion, and creativity far short of what they were ultimately able to envision and achieve.

Read moreCreating Change: Yes, We Can!

7 Gateways: The Hunger for Joy and Delight

originally published 11/14/16; re-published with edits 7/17/17

by Krista Taylor

Jake fist-pumped the air with a gigantic smile plastered across his face, as he loudly and repeatedly declared victory. To the casual observer, this may have looked like “excessive celebration,” but our students were delighted by Jake’s jubilant behavior. Jake is a student with autism, and he had just been wildly successful at one of our most popular games.

Read more7 Gateways: The Hunger for Joy and Delight

Let’s Meet! (Good Books: Meeting Wise)

Let’s meet.

Few sentences carry so much uncertainty in the workplace. There are many unknowns in this invitation. Questions spring to mind. Why? For how long? When? And frequently, there are deep, unasked questions, like Will it be worth my time? Magazines like Forbes and Harvard Business Review frequently feature articles on improving meetings, maximizing meetings, shortening meetings, or avoiding meetings altogether. These topics are nearly guaranteed to drive readers to the site.

Meetings are not all bad, but we all have been in bad meetings. So our experience is tainted, and we are understandably wary. Even folks who understand that a lot can get accomplished at a meeting have to offer incentives and promises to get people to show up at all.

Read moreLet’s Meet! (Good Books: Meeting Wise)

Take A Break!

-by Jack M. Jose, originally published July 4, 2016, revised July 2017

I am bad at vacations. Really bad. Classically bad. I have trouble scheduling them. I dislike planning for them. I pack well enough, but I put it off to the moments before we leave. On occasion I vow, “This vacation will be different.” I claim I will get away from work for real, but it always creeps back in, usually through an open door. A door that I propped open. After sunset we return to the hotel room, and I sneak a glimpse at the computer. Or perhaps I take a quick look at my phone and handle an email discreetly while waiting for a table at a restaurant. I then look up into my wife’s disapproving stare.

July, 2015, I vowed to fix that.

Read moreTake A Break!

Why Are You Leaving Me?

– by Jack M. Jose

This week I was preparing a post about difficult conversations. I was reviewing some of the articles and books I have read about challenging conversations, and thinking back on the many times I have had to deliver hard news to a student’s family, or to a friend or an employee, or someone who is both. The topics at Angels and Superheroes are charted out weeks in advance. Our spreadsheet includes some ideas of what should be covered in the post. I had some ideas about what I wanted to say regarding the difficult conversations I often have to schedule and implement.

And then, serendipitously, someone who is both an employee and a friend came to me to have a difficult conversation. Or, more accurately, to deliver some hard news. Sometimes the situation comes to you.

He is a talented and bright young teacher. I interviewed him for the district several years ago, and walked away impressed, wishing I had a spot for him on my roster. I was devastated when, just a couple short weeks later, a spot opened up and I called human resources only to learn that he had been placed at another school. I kept in touch, and ran into him at social justice events, becoming more convinced over time that he would be an asset to the school. I periodically brought him up in conversations as “the one who got away.” Last spring, when we again had an opening, he transferred to our school. He turned out to be everything that I hoped he would be, and in some ways more.

In just his first year in the building he has taken on some leadership roles, and built a strong rapport with students and staff. Behind the scenes he operates with integrity, including helping facilitate difficult “elephant in the room” discussions, and brings insight to math and science instruction in the school. As for our Montessori approach, he just understands it. In the second semester when I stopped in to observe his classroom one day, he asked the class, “Who is our ambassador today?” When it was determined the designated student was absent, another student quickly volunteered and came over to me as he continued his lesson. She quietly welcomed me to the class, gave me a copy of a handout they were working on, told me the main point of the day’s lesson, and suggested places I could sit. She checked on me at each transition. This teacher had built leadership and community into his classroom process.

I identified very closely with him, perhaps because I saw an approach similar to mine. He was open to feedback, and eager to learn. I walked out of observations and discussions with him wondering what I could give to him to help him progress, wondering if perhaps I had anything to offer. Of course principals do not have favorite teachers, just as teachers do not have favorite students. But we know that in each group there are a few who make the day flow more smoothly, and who operate independently. They seem to put more in than they need out of the system.

Then he scheduled this meeting with me.

I was not worried about it at all. We had consulted closely on his intersession planning for several weeks, going back and forth with the CPS legal team and facilities department to ultimately decide that it would be unwise to build a climbing wall outdoors on school property. More recently we had spoken to back off of an outdoor climbing plan, and as he requested to add a second Gamble Moment to our annual Gamble Moments book.

In my office last week, the look on his face was grave. “Mr. Jose, this is not an easy thing to say.”

I knew it right then. He was leaving. My heart sank. I know my feelings escaped onto my face because he reacted. I’m not certain, but as I remember it, the next words out of his mouth were, “I’m sorry.” That was my confirmation of why he needed to talk.

He was leaving me.

Sure, I know, he was leaving the school, he was leaving the students, he was leaving all of us, but I became intensely aware that I was taking the news very personally.  The rest of the conversation was important, perhaps crucial, but the news was all delivered in the set-up, the look on his face, and his apology.

He was leaving me.

Scary place, the future.

Teachers leave buildings all the time. Teachers leave teaching too. In a recent NPR article, Linda Hammond, the President and CEO of the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, cited the national attrition rate – out of teaching – as 8%. The Shanker Institute, a nonprofit educational research group, asserted in this 2015 article that the “mover” and “leaver” rates were about 8% each, nationally, resulting in a combined typical rate of 16% attrition. Krista talks more powerfully about teacher burnout here.

Gamble Montessori had a bad year. As of the publication of this post, seven teachers are leaving the school, which is 18% of our 39 full-time teachers. Last year that number was better – we had five teachers leave, or 12%. (I want to rationalize even further: We have three itinerant academic teachers and an itinerant band director, if calculated in, this would push our rate this year to 16%. However, this is merely rationalization.) Two other teachers met with me during the year to discuss leaving; other possibilities they were pursuing in their personal lives could potentially pull them away. One went so far as to fill out a resignation paper from the district. However, both saw those prospects dim and are currently scheduled to return next year.

But why do teachers leave? Hammond provided two reasons. “[T]he first reason is lack of administrative support. The second one is concerns about the way accountability pressures in the No Child Left Behind era created pressure to teach to the test, burdensome sanctions and the loss of autonomy in the classroom.” Okay, I can deal with that. One of those reasons is in my control.

Jennifer Duffield, co-founder of Dancing Moose Montessori School in West Valley City, UT was pretty direct in her recent talk at the American Montessori Society (AMS) National Conference. In her words to administrators she said, simply, “The bad news is, we’re the problem. The good news is, we can also be the solution.” She stated that 63% of teachers who had negative feedback about administrators left, and 93% with positive feedback stayed.

Her data, like Hammond’s, points to a persistent 7% who leave despite positive feelings about administration.

It doesn’t take data, or an AMS presentation, for me to blame myself when a teacher leaves. Sometimes the reason presented is wholly unrelated to me, such as moving out of town following a marriage, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow a dream job. And to be certain, some of those who move on do so as a mutual parting of ways, perhaps after losing their zest for teaching, or exhibiting the same struggles with relationships or deadlines year after year. Nonetheless, I take each resignation or move personally.

As the leader of the school, I identify personally with each win or loss. This can be literal, like our first ever win with each of our athletics teams, or figurative, like the arrival and departure of staff. Our academic scores flood me with a range of emotions, despite my disparagement of using those scores to evaluate me, the school, the teachers, and our students. Each departure – or even rumor of a possible departure – sets off inside of me a volley of soul-searching and self-questioning. “What did I do wrong? How could I have better supported him/her? Was it something I said or did? Something I did NOT say or do?” And the list of reasons never seems to involve me. It is either a wedding, moving to be nearer to family, retirement, a dream job opportunity or similar reasons. However, I am certain that this is just people being polite to me. I queried him the same way I asked others: is there something I could have done better?

So what can be done about it? Duffield’s approach was straightforward: buy them coffee. Well, it was more complicated than that. She provided a host of solutions for the principal:

  • Focus on teacher growth and well being
  • Take more of the blame, and less of the credit
  • Protect them from district initiatives and unimportant tasks
  • Create an interdependent community where they have the resources to share problem-solving responsibilities
  • Listen to them, and give them what they need (which is, sometimes, coffee)
  • Have hard conversations, where you are nice, but tough [she used the word “nice,” but other authors and presenters, including Krista, and Patricia Jennings, would improve this suggestion by saying we should be “kind” but tough]

These rules describe the support that teachers need from their principals, and are not just rules for conversations. They seem to lay the groundwork for only the positive, growth-focused conversations, or for moments of praise and co-working to solve problems. Yet, because they help set the basis for building community, they actually help with all conversations. This includes hard conversations, like corrective feedback on observations, and addressing when someone falls short of our expectations. These can be uncomfortable. I used to flee from these conversations. Now sometimes I not only don’t avoid them, but I sort of relish them. I see each as a challenge and evidence of my growth, and a chance to use what I learned in reading Conversational Capacity. If I get a report that an adult in the school has spoken inappropriately to a student, or questioned another adult’s decision openly in front of others, I get the familiar rush of blood to my head. It would be easy to nod and promptly forget the report. Instead, now, I still give the nod, and a non-committal sound, then I seek the best way to address the issue directly. Sometimes the right answer is to say to the teacher in front of me, who has just complained about a colleague, “And what did they say when you addressed this with them?” If they did not have the conversation, which is often the case, I offer to help them structure the conversation, and offer my assistance for feedback if the meeting does not go as planned. Or if they have tried conversation and it did not work, instead of avoidance, I stride intentionally into the conversation. It is this recent practice that helped me be ready when my teacher sat down in my office and said, “This is hard.”

So I listened. He explained about a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with friends on a way to help impoverished students. It had been a dream of theirs, but a grant meant that his friends could afford to pay him, at least for a year. This was his passion, and he could be paid to follow it.

In response, I told him, honestly, how sad I was to hear this. I explained his value to me personally, and to the team, and how I had figured him into plans moving forward at the school. I stated – bluntly, I thought – that while I would be happy to hear if he changed his mind, I was not trying to change his mind.  I was simply expressing the facts. I reassured him that he was doing the right thing by pursuing his dream and that if he chose to return, I would endeavor to find a place for him at our school, because it was better with him here. No one should ever be given any message different than that.

Personally, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. I didn’t see it coming. And I told him so. I just named the feeling. But in expressing that to him, and remaining focused on what he needed – support, reassurance, and the confidence that he could have a place to return if his dream could not be realized – I had the difficult conversation the right way. Most importantly, I did not waiver from my philosophy of supporting the person in front of me. The school is important, but not more important than any of the people in it.

At Gamble, we take time in our staff meetings for acknowledgements. This is the time we structure to build community by thanking others or pointing out good work they have done to help us individually or as a school. At Monday’s staff meeting, when it was time for acknowledgements, my teacher who was leaving spoke up. “I’d like to acknowledge Jack. We had a hard conversation last week, and he was extremely understanding and supportive. I really appreciate that.” This weekend, as I sought his permission to use the story for this blog, he added, “Still feeling that way too. Appreciate your grace.”

There was a time when this was not the conversation I would have. One year, my second as principal, a promising young teacher approached me and asked permission to leave. She had a chance to move to our sister school, where she indicated she had dreamed of teaching. The timing was very late, and she had to ask me because the internal transfer rounds were over, and a transfer would require permission from both principals. I considered the calendar, and the difficulty involved in getting a teacher into the vacancy in time for opening day, let alone one as promising as her. I prevented her move. I held my ground even after Krista came to me and strongly advocated for supporting the individual over the institution. I was doing what was best for the school, I felt, and certainly what was best for me.

I have come to believe that I was wrong.

This decision was, I believe, subconsciously held against me by the teacher for the rest of her tenure at our school. She once even said as much as we were discussing a different issue. I had broken the relationship in order to do what I believed was best for the school, and I had ultimately benefitted nothing. She stayed a few more years, and proved that my belief in her promise was well-placed. She developed a strong teaching presence and structured a highly functional classroom, working closely with other adults to meet the needs of students. When another opportunity came to leave, however, she took it. But really, she had left years before, and I wonder if perhaps she could have been a better teacher somewhere else, or perhaps she would have seen the grass was not greener and returned. Neither of us will ever know. I am certain that she is gone from our school forever.

Maybe this other young teacher, the one I supported instead of blocking, will come back. There is precedent for that at our school. Maybe he won’t. Ultimately, I am proud that I supported him in the ways I could.

I can’t fully change the fact that I feel like he, and the others, are leaving me. ME, personally. I can, however, take steps to help all of my teachers feel more supported, and to take the action I can to support them in their roles and in their careers, even if that means letting them go.