Good Books: The Checklist Manifesto

-by Jack M. Jose

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It always seemed to happen this way: The parents left the room at the end of the meeting, and walked down the hallway. We resumed our team meeting, addressing the next issue on the agenda. Someone would exclaim, “Rats! Forgot to ask them about the permission slip for the field trip!” And he or she would rush to the door, but the parents were gone.

Or maybe we had forgotten to explain a key upcoming homework assignment, or mention an important project deadline.

This was a chronic experience for each of the teacher teams I was on at Hughes Center. And it turns out that forgetting things is a problem for people in other professions too. I learned a simple and effective solution to this vexing problem in a book about making detailed lists, and following them in order: The Checklist Manifesto.

 

Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon and author, starts The Checklist Manifesto by differentiating between errors made in the face of great complexity (because we do not know enough), and errors made by ineptitude (because we fail to access or use what we do know). Speaking from his profession as a surgeon, great complexity is a reality of his daily work. We encounter similar complexity as educators – what is the necessary preparation to help a student understand or create an appropriate metaphor, or to know when to solve a problem using the quadratic formula? These are complex, but knowable. As professionals in a particular discipline, we should be expected to have a grasp of the solutions to these intellectual progressions. This is where our expertise is absolutely necessary and irreducible. Checklists cannot necessarily help with this.  Errors of ineptitude or oversight, however, are the kinds of errors that checklists are designed to eliminate. Procedures need to happen in a certain order, and doing them that way creates better outcomes.

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picked up a newer version of The Checklist Manifesto at a book store last year, and saw that it had a new introduction. Though I had read the book years before, I was immediately drawn into the narrative, demonstrating how a checklist was instrumental in helping to safely (and famously) crash land a plane into the Potomac River. More on that later, as I talk more about the book that helped me see the world of my work completely differently. Principals and teachers inhabit a world of tremendous complexity. There are layers of expectations placed on their students, dozens of types of assessments, and countless instructional tools and techniques at their disposal to help their students master the skills necessary for promotion. Within this complexity, there are some processes that repeat somewhat endlessly into the future, processes contained within a single class period, a day, a week, a quarter, a semester and even a year. There are right ways to do many of these regular processes. Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.

 

Checklists to help with routine events

In 2012, as part of training for principals in Cincinnati Public Schools, a member of the Board of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital spoke about the mistakes made by doctors at the hospital. They had a patient mortality rate of 4.6% in 2001, which had been a very slight improvement on the year before.  This placed them above the middle of the pack for similar hospitals, and had been a point of some pride for earlier leadership. However, they had become dissatisfied with being in the middle of the pack relative to the percentage of children dying in their care. Each number was a tragedy, and there was no excuse for not taking effective measures to prevent them. The Board at Children’s was especially concerned to note that many of these deaths were, in their estimation, preventable. Doctors administering incorrect medicines or doses, doctors and nurses making mistakes that resulted in infections, such as pneumonia acquired while on a ventilator. They instituted a series of reforms which included checklists. At the end of 2011, their mortality rate had been cut dramatically[1].

Gwande provides as an example a different institution, Johns Hopkins hospital, where checklists were instituted for a specific common ventilator procedure. In addition to a clear set of steps posted where all could see them, nurses were given the unusual authority to stop the procedure if a step was missed. Prior to the implementation of the checklist, secondary infections had been the leading cause of complications and deaths at one of the world’s most prestigious medical facilities. This simple addition nearly eliminated those infections.

Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.

So checklists can help eliminate mistakes as we repeatedly complete important procedures. An example of an academic use for routines is the weekly checklist in the structured classroom. In a typical classroom, a child might receive one or two assignments each day, with varying due dates. Assignments may even be dispensed one at a time. However, a checklist is an important tool in helping a child develop skills related to managing time and work. The Montessori weekly checklist enumerates planned lessons and activities, such as regular reading time for students to encounter challenging and engaging material, teacher-led mini-lessons to provide new content, and shelfwork to help each student develop existing skills. The checklist format aids the student in utilizing her time wisely to complete the necessary work. Powerfully, the checklist in this case serves the “patient” and the “doctor” equally, as utilizing the format from week to week ensures that the necessary modes of instruction are regularly used, instead of a teacher falling back on a favorite or comfortable routine or lesson format.

 

 

Checklists to help with infrequent events

The popular rock band Van Halen’s live performances included massive amplifiers, fireworks, lights, and electric and audio cables spread across entire stadiums. Their shows were memorable, but their demands as a band were legendary and one was individually ridiculous: they demanded M&Ms at every show, with all the brown ones picked out. Their manager explained to Dr. Gawande that it was not because they were pampered celebrities with an aversion to brown candies. Instead, their demanding checklist was created to make sure that the performers and fans were safe on stage every night. There was a lot that could go wrong, especially as the lead singer was hoisted in a harness for a spectacular entry, and fans stood near scaffolding holding massive audio equipment – and did I mention fireworks, water, and electricity? The tour double-checked everything the day they arrived; if there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, they would know that the venue did not pay attention to the details. It was not a frivolous demand; it was a fail-safe to ensure that no one’s safety was at risk.

So checklists can help make sure that an infrequent or even one-time event, such as a Van Halen show in your local arena, happens flawlessly.

I explained earlier that Gawande said checklists could help with errors of ineptitude or oversight, where someone makes a mistake in carrying out a familiar procedure. This is the team meeting problem. We would enter a conversation with a specific objective, and the intention to cover one or two items in particular, such as poor grades, or a particular disciplinary incident. The conversation would address the big issue, and the parent might bring up new and important information. We would wander off-task, fully engaged in the new direction of the conversation. These can be contentious meetings, full of hurt feelings and embarrassment for students and adults alike. It is understandable that everyone involved might forget other, less significant topics momentarily. Perhaps we missed a signature on a permission slip for an upcoming trip, or we failed to make sure the family could access the online gradebook.

Inspired by this book, and motivated by our repeated experience, we created a team meeting checklist. We made a simple list on the bottom of the page, charting the things we might need to cover in a conference. We used our old meeting form with this small addition and we found that we forgot less, and accomplished more, than we had before just by assigning one person to run through the checklist at the end of the meeting, to ensure we hit each topic.

This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection.

Okay, so maybe conferences are not life-and-death situations on the surface. And they definitely are not rock-n-roll concerts. However, they can be important moments in a child’s education, and key pivot points in the relationship between a family and the school. Getting things right in the conference – covering the important issues fully, addressing critical needs, and valuing the family’s time – is an important part of building trust and making sure that the student’s needs are met. There are a finite number of things that can potentially be covered in a conference, which have a seemingly infinite number of permutations. A checklist like the one here is an investment in the golden triangle – the relationship between the student, teacher, and parent.

 

Checklists to help in moments of conflict or crisis

Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger will be the first to tell you that he finds it odd to be famous as a pilot because he crashed a plane. As his passenger jet lifted off from LaGuardia airport in 2009, it struck a flock of geese, causing damage to both jet engines. There could have been dozens of causes. The airline industry, which has an understandable focus on safety, has used checklists for years, and they had one for just this situation. Sully and his copilot were able to speed twice through this troubleshooting checklist before deciding they needed to look for the safest possible place to land a plane in Manhattan. He chose the Hudson River, and there were – famously – no deaths. He attributes his clear thinking to his familiarity with the checklist. The process for eliminating all possible causes reduced his panic and allowed him the time to find the best place to crash land.

Checklists can not only be used to make sure that the necessary steps all happen in a moment of high tension or anxiety, they can also work to make sure that steps happen in the correct order. At Gamble Montessori high school, we realized that when students returned from suspension, that they felt dislocated from the school – out of touch with what they had missed in class, and still feeling as if their teachers distrusted or disliked them because of the incident. So we instituted a return conference checklist, which we explain in more detail in our post Welcome Back. We had learned from experience that these steps had to happen in a certain order. Too often, these conferences after an incident immediately start with a description from someone at the school of what happened. The student often would react one of two ways: they would either dispute the details of what was being said, or they would sit in silence and mentally remove themselves from the conference. We know that a student in this mindset will not be a partner in problem-solving for the future. So we turned the old, ineffective conference model on its head. Our checklist starts with a non-negotiable step where every adult at the table offers a strength that they see in the child. Only later in the conference is there a brief description of the incident followed not with accusations and a re-hashing of the event, but with everyone involved being asked to partner in helping the student be successful moving forward.

This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection. The student, having been welcomed back with a shared awareness and acknowledgement of his strengths, gets to become a partner in problem-solving how to help himself be successful moving forward. The intentional sequence of events works to help students return to school ready to learn.

Ordered checklists, simple lists of routines and important processes, are tremendously useful in many professional situations, including education. Whether in routine events, infrequent occurrences, or moments of conflict, having a list of the correct sequence of steps to try can help make sure we reach the best possible outcome for all involved.

Perhaps there are processes for which you already use effective checklists, or there are processes at your school that need to be “checklisted.”

We would love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

[1] “Newsroom.” Cincinnati Children’s Earns National Award for Patient Safety. Jim Feuer, n.d. Web. 30 July 2016.

Talking About Tragedy

-by Jack M. Jose

Events of the past two weeks have shocked the nation. Videos of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have been widely spread, and even more widely discussed and debated. The shooting of 11 Dallas police officers, leaving 5 dead, while they escorted a Black Lives Matter march, created a national crisis. Then a truck ran into a large crowd in Nice, France, killing 84 people. And Sunday morning’s news brought the deaths of 3 more police officers in Baton Rouge. … Or perhaps you are reading this article after these events have faded; in that case you can likely fill in your own tragic “news of the week” that has created a comparable feeling of anxiety and dread.

Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear.

Our children arrive at school with questions and concerns. They have seen horrific images. They have heard of deaths and worse. Perhaps their parents have shielded them from it, and they’ve learned about it in the halls, or perhaps their parents have involved them in the discussion, have added on their own fears and conjecture. We know that when the world of safety and well-being is at risk, our bodies produce adrenaline, and we are unable to master even short-term memory tasks, let alone take on the deep learning demanded today. Our students, less familiar with the news and thus less able to deal with the experience of the stress reaction, are even less capable of dealing with it. They cannot just “forget about it” or even push it to the side for too long.

Students often worry about national and international events they see on the news.
Students often worry about national and international events they see on the news.

What do you do when you can’t ignore it, and an outside tragedy simply has to be addressed in your classroom? There are a series of questions to guide you through the process of addressing fears, whether it is the questioning of a single child or a group of wary adults. Through the lens of these four questions, we can start to address the difficult work of talking about tragedy. For the purpose of unification of the article, the Philando Castile shooting will remain the primary (though not the only) example throughout.

What do you know?

With younger children, “What do you know?” is an obvious first question. (It is especially handy when you suspect there is a “birds and bees” question coming. Often, “what do you know” lets you start a couple levels easier than you thought!) This gives you a chance to assess what the student(s) know, and to determine what, if any, misconceptions they may have about the situation. The same is true for our adolescents and even adults engaging in a conversation. Asking “what do you know” is a great start to any discussion, because it grounds it in facts.

The teacher is a helpful guide in this conversation, and she must be diligent in her attention to details. It is important that there is precision in language, and that the individuals involved are spoken about respectfully. For example, if discussing the shooting of Philando Castile, our conventions of discussion would dictate that we refer to him as Mr. Castile, and to the officer involved as Officer Yanez. Later we might need to look up the names of Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, and the other officer involved to facilitate the conversation. We might point out that news agencies would be unlikely to publish the young girl’s name, because she is a minor and responsible media generally respect the right of privacy for minors. These conventions of manners and civility retain the dignity of those who are being discussed, and thus uphold our own classroom values. We can establish the city in which the event occurred, the date and time, and other factual information.

Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring. The knowledge that an effort is being made to be objective and to get things right helps calm our students. Refusing to use loaded language such as “resisting” or “assassination”, with the explanation that these words are characterization rather than facts, will keep the conversation in a more rational spot.  It can also create order and reason among students who, especially in a case such as this, may have very different and strongly emotional interpretations of the significance of the event.

What do you fear?

This is an important second question, and the one that most clearly allows you to address the fears of the individual students. By asking this question, you will get to peek inside their minds, in a sense, and find out what drives their strong reaction. Using the example above, a student might express a fear that their own father or uncle might be at risk, and you might learn that their concern stems from that individual being a black man, or an officer, or both … or neither.

The fears of children can be outsized and, in our minds, irrational. However, dismissing their concerns out-of-hand is not reassuring. In their book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish remind us that in order to stay in good communication with our children, at any age, we must first accept their viewpoint as valid. If a child expresses a fear that police will go around shooting more and more people, the teacher must resist the urge to laugh or mock this viewpoint. “That’s ridiculous, you don’t have to worry about that,” might seal the deal for an adult, but it is not reassuring to a child. In fact, it will likely damage their trust in you, and make it less likely that they will open up to you in the future, since they will then know their viewpoint will not be seen as valid.

Instead, if a fear seems outsized or irrational, it should be treated with respect, and revisited with examples and gentle questions. “Why do you worry about that?” is a good follow-up question. This might elicit a specific incident in the child’s past that opens up a related set of fears. Or, it might prompt the child to self-examine. In this questioning, the student himself might note that although he saw this one video, that in fact he knows several adults who have stories about being pulled over and this has not happened to them. The teacher might provide other related facts, perhaps about the number of traffic stops daily that pass without incident, or an investigation of what draws people to become a police officer. The desire to help others, which is a common answer to that question, does not correlate well with an eagerness to shoot others.

The teacher must guard herself against personalizing the issue. It is a powerful human tendency to treat our personal experience as if it is proof of something true when, at best, it is merely a pixel of evidence in a much larger picture. That does not mean that her perspective and experience are not true or a valuable part of the conversation; it does, however, mean that it should not be treated as the end of the discussion on that matter.

Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear

I was teaching at Hughes High School in Cincinnati in April, 2001 when 19 year old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Officer Steven Roach, kicking off weeks of civil unrest in our city. I was a white teacher in a classroom of predominantly black students, and we found ourselves involved in a challenging conversation about the incident. My most vocal students were advocating for running from the police, perhaps just to show me their attitude toward authority, or perhaps for other reasons. By using the Socratic method of questioning, I helped the students have a fact-based and growth-focused conversation about the incident. As we covered the details we knew, a student pointed out that Mr. Thomas ran because he was scared. I asked, “And how did Officer Roach probably feel?” Students offered, “angry,” “salty” (slang for “embarrassed”) and then one student said, “Awwww!” and the room went quieter. “No,” this student exclaimed, aware that he’d had an important insight.  “He was feeling scared too, running down a dark alley after some guy.” This changed the conversation for us, as some of the students had not considered the perspective of each person involved, just the person who was most like them.

Sometimes the fear a child expresses is completely rational. The child whose mother is a police officer is understandably afraid for her safety when she is at work. A child might fear what could happen if his father got pulled over by police. When these fears are expressed, there is not a statement to be used as a talisman to push them away. There should not even be a desire to push them away. Fear is real. Fear is personal. It is not, in itself, irrational. Attempting to simply soothe someone’s fear or to make them feel better is not the answer. Understanding and sympathy – literally “feeling with” – are the best tools at our disposal. “I am certain that you worry about that. I am sorry that it causes you anxiety.” Feeling heard and understood is good medicine for fear.

What do you hope?

Taking the discussion from the realm of fear to the realm of hope can be a pivotal moment in a conversation, and a transformative moment in the classroom. Asking this question next allows the group to move on from the discussion of our fears – where, sadly, we may compound each others’ fears, as students now hear new things which make them scared – to a more positive focus.

One important change the question “What do you hope?” brings about is greater involvement in the conversation. Some students may have sat out the first part of the conversation because they did not know as much as their peers, or because their thoughts were being well-represented by other students, or because they were simply uncomfortable sharing their fears with others. Some may not have gotten involved because they feel no direct connection to the incident. However, we are all creative, and those students whose voices were not heard during the discussion of our fears are often interested in describing their vision of the world as it could be.

Frankly, children are really good at “hope.” Their optimistic eyes can see opportunities for peace and cooperation that we adults have long since stopped being able to see. And like in the “fears” discussion, the teacher will receive some ideas that she, with her age and wisdom, might feel tempted to dispel. Fortunately, I probably do not have to tell anyone that you should not say to a child, “Well, we can’t ALL love EVERYBODY.” So they will propose a more perfect vision of the future that may exclude violence, or eliminates the need for police, or may likely come up with something we cannot even image. The correct answer for this is “Wouldn’t that be great!” Meanwhile, the teacher can still root the optimism to reality. The child who suggests “We can make it so the police don’t shoot,” might get a response that “Yes, perhaps with different training this could happen.” The switch in the conversation is not merely semantic, however. The human brain needs to experience optimism, and can be trained to do it.  A student proposing a majestic, sweeping solution can be helped to make it more specific, which makes it less ethereal and more likely to occur – a solution rather than a dream. Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, acknowledges that creating realistic steps within an optimistic view helps redirect the anxiety into a constructive state of mind. This makes the situation survivable, and thus more mundane.

Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring

This question also engages us – students and teachers – intellectually, and gets us out of our amygdala and into the rest of our brain. We are also heartbroken by these events, and the sense of powerlessness we feel to affect change. This question is more than an exercise, it is a form of therapy. We cannot resist problem solving under most conditions. It is a strong evolutionary trait (coupled with the also-indispensable ability to worry about the future) that has treated us well over time.

17k53yHow can you act?

Fred Rogers, longtime host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, would get scared seeing tragic events on TV as a child. His mother would tell him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” He says that this thought brings him comfort to this day. All around us, in every situation, there are people who are helping rather than hurting. It brings him comfort because it draws us out of helplessness into our sphere of influence and allows us a chance to take action.

What do we know? What do we fear? What do we hope? How can we help?

When we learned that Philando Castile had been a cafeteria supervisor in a Montessori school, members of the Montessori community in Cincinnati wanted to do something specific and positive to honor his life. We reached out to one another on Facebook. A small group met at Gamble on the Wednesday after the event to brainstorm a response. What we came up with was a three-part response. First, we agreed to act in our own backyard. In response to a suggestion that we should put a picture of Philando Castile on our cafeteria, which we rejected, it was proposed that instead we honor our own cafeteria workers with a picture in a prominent place. We also sent a peace lily to Mr. Castile’s funeral, with the message “To the Family & Friends of Philando Castile – Our hearts are full of love and sorrow as your family and our country mourn the loss and celebrate the life of your son, brother, and friend. In sympathy, Cincinnati Public Schools, Montessori Coalition.”

Then we turned to the issue of talking with our students, staff and parents. We acknowledged that this conversation would vary based on the age of our students. Elementary schools were likely going to plan for a different type of conversation than our high schools. Within our own conversation we were able to anticipate challenges of underlying biases and beliefs. We acknowledged the importance of setting up an opportunity for our parents and staff to talk in a safe place. We were learning to dance together, we realized. We had to make it okay to step on each others’ toes without quitting. This was true for the teachers and administrators, and would be true in our classrooms, and in our PTO meetings as well, where a great diversity of opinions would be aired. Creating this atmosphere starts with an overt statement at the beginning of the conversation: at least one of us is likely to say something unintentionally hurtful or offensive, but we all have made ourselves vulnerable by attending this conversation. We have to respect and value that risk.

With our staff, we agreed to participate in an awareness-raising activity, to help our teachers be aware that each of us are struggling with hidden issues and concerns.

In the proper structure, and given a safe place to express fears and ideas, students can come up with some impressive solutions. This conversation will always be emotional, challenging, and exhausting, but difficult conversations frequently are. Following these steps will help create a better sense of understanding and efficacy among all involved.

Exeter Math Institute: Math or Social Justice?

-by Krista Taylor

“Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I’m sorry, what?

It was the first day of math training, and this was the initial task.   I had signed up for this professional development opportunity because Jack said it would be good, and because I have spent a significant amount of time over the past several years trying to improve my math instruction. Because, you see, I was “bad at math,” and that is not something that I ever want to pass on to my students. As a result, I have worked hard at becoming a better math teacher.

Math has never come as easily to me as other subject areas. In the 7th grade, I was “honors-tracked” in all subjects. I only stayed in honors through the end of the 8th grade, but by then the damage was done because my course of study in math had already been accelerated. I skated through Algebra II in the 9th grade, and very nearly failed Geometry in the 10th. At that point, I stopped taking math altogether. My advisor told me that I shouldn’t even consider taking Chemistry “because of all that math,” so science went as well. While that opened a lot of time in my schedule for terrific courses like Art History, and the History of the Theater, ultimately quitting math early did me no favors.

What irony then that teaching math has been a part of my job description throughout my career.

It wasn’t until I spent three years co-teaching math at Gamble with Katie Doyle that I began to feel a sense of competency. This was reinforced by the occasional proclamations of my own children when, upon returning home from work in the evening, I would hear, “I’m glad you’re finally home; I’ve been waiting for you to help me with my math homework!” Every time, I was tempted to turn around and look for whoever most certainly was coming in the door behind me. “I’m sorry, you’re waiting for who to help you with your math homework?”

Which brings me back to the math training. I want to be a better math teacher. I want teaching math to feel as fluid for me as teaching English does. I want to be certain that I am serving my students in the best way possible. To that end, I know I need to keep working at math. So, I committed to four summer days of math PD.

Which brings us back to, “Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Excuse me, but you see, I think I’m in the wrong training. I want to get better at teaching math, not doing math!”

I wasn’t nearly that brave, so instead I did this. (Okay, with the group I was working with, and assistance from the teacher, I did this. It’s still pretty cool.)

Exeter math paper

I’ll admit it, as an adult learner, the math was interesting. We were working on problems from the 9th and 10th grade math curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Yes, THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Arguably the most prestigious 9th-12th grade prep school in the country. Tuition for boarding students at Exeter is $47,000 annually; for day students, it is a mere $36,500, and there are rigorous admission criteria. The average class size is twelve; the student-teacher ratio is five to one. THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Full stop.

The Exeter math program is unlike any math instruction I have ever experienced.FullSizeRender (9)

  • There is no textbook, only a binder full of problems.
  • There is no direct instruction.
  • There is no modeling.
  • There are no examples.
  • Nearly every problem is a multi-step, word problem.

 

The structure of the class is such that when students enter the classroom, they immediately begin putting answers on the board from the homework the night before. Then the group discusses each problem, assessing accuracy, determining alternate methods, revising the work, questioning the results. The teacher’s role is to provide a few prompts and probing questions to deepen the understanding of the group, and to correct inaccuracies. Once all of the problems have been explored, new homework is assigned to be analyzed the next day in class. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the instructional process each day.

But, at the end of Day 1, I found myself feeling aggravated. I wanted to get better at teaching math to MY students. My 7th and 8th grade students at Gamble Montessori High School in the Cincinnati Public School System. How in the world was spending 8 hours a day for 4 days completing Exeter math problems going to help me to do that?!

Exeter students are not my students.

Exeter students pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year. Seventy percent of my students are eligible for the Federal Free Lunch Program. Exeter students must demonstrate academic excellence in order to be admitted to the program. Thirty percent of my students are identified as having a disability; many more struggle with significant skill gaps. Exeter students either live at school full-time or remain on campus until 8:00pm each evening. My students go home at the end of a 7-hour school day, and some of them experience significant stress in those home environments. Exeter students are instructed in class sizes of 12. My students are in classes with 25-35 of their peers.

Exeter students are not my students.

The second afternoon, during a break, I had a casual off-hand conversation with Sami Atif, one of our instructors who is a math teacher at Exeter. We were discussing the make-up of the student body at Exeter.

He said, “It’s a cultural thing.”

Taken aback, I defensively asked, “What do you mean, exactly?”

His response surprised me. “It’s about culture.  These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem.  I don’t think I ever questioned a teacher when I was growing up.  I wouldn’t have dared.  These kids don’t have that issue.  It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

The conversation lagged, the break ended, and we went on with class. But his words hung with me. I revisited them on the drive home, and at some point before I went to bed that evening, it hit me like a kick in the gut.

“These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem . . . It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them.

Days three and four of the training were different for me. I was all in. Not just for me, for my students, too.   It helped, of course, that I was witnessing my own math development in action. I was thrilled on Wednesday evening to discover that not only was I able to approach nearly every problem assigned for homework, I was able to get to an answer that I was near certain was correct.

Here is an example: “Let A = (-2,4) and B = (7,6). Find the point P on the line y=2 that makes the total distance AQ+BQ as small as possible.”

IMG_0448 (1)

That was the change in me after three days of practice.

And I started to observe the instructors. This was far more than a curriculum; it was a methodology. The first thing I realized was that they never (never!) provided or confirmed an answer. This prompted more than one person to question whether the instructors actually even knew the correct answers! Instead they met questions with questions and provided guidance in the form of suggestions or references back to previously constructed knowledge.

By this point, I was writing down everything they said because I know from past experience that when looking to make a shift in practice, sometimes you have to “fake it ‘til you make it.” I was seeking a script, so I allowed the instructors to unknowingly provide it for me themselves. Here are some of their prompts:

“It looks like maybe you were thinking . . . “

“Are there any other ways to get there?”

“That’s a step I want to process more.”

“That’s really interesting.”

“Are there any other ways to look at this?”

“Are you convinced that you’ve found the correct answers?”

This strategy is known as “Harkness teaching” as it was first conceived of by Edward Harkness, an oil magnate who gave a significant donation to Exeter Academy for implementation of a teaching style that he described thusly:

“What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

Oh, yes, Mr. Harkness, I, too, see your vision as revolutionary.

And yet I remain haunted by the question of “how.” How can I possibly implement this in my classroom – keeping in mind that many of my 7th and 8th grade students arrive with math skills that are expected from a 4th or 5th grader. What can I do to help them to reach this level of math confidence and comprehension?

What I didn’t realize initially was that this work had already been begun by Savannah Rabal, a junior high math teacher at our sister school, Clark Montessori. Savannah was out of town for the first two days of the training, but when she arrived on the third day, I began picking her brain for how she had done it. Her wise words, “Trust the Process,” provided me with hope in my ability to implement something similar in my own classroom.

Here are some of the expectations that she and her class developed for working with this type of instruction.

Exeter Savannah

So perhaps it is possible to do something like this after all – to provide my students with the opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers solving high-level math problems through exploration, discussion, discovery, and critical thinking. I do not know yet exactly what implementation of this methodology will look like in my classroom, but here are my thoughts so far:

  • Begin with just 1 day a week
  • Provide direct instruction in expectations for the process; allow for student input and suggestions as we identify strategies for working together
  • Establish small groups that would work together consistently
    • Groupings could be heterogeneous, allowing stronger students to support those who are struggling
    • Groupings could be homogenous with differentiated questions, allowing strong students to work together toward acceleration, while struggling learners would be obligated to take risks and make attempts to approach the task without the support of their typically-relied upon peers.
    • Groupings could be a flexible combination of both homogenous and heterogenous groupings, allowing for the benefits of both options
  • Develop scaffolded supports to support student exploration and learning
    • Teacher prompts
    • Written structures such as guiding prompts and organizational supports
    • Pre-select appropriately leveled questions or design our own
  • Begin the process by working the problems together in class rather than expecting students to tackle them independently as homework in the initial roll-out phase

I’ll be honest. I am nervous as all get-out to even attempt beginning this process. There seems to be so many hurdles in the way. The challenges my students face with math content is just the beginning.

How on earth will I get my colleagues on board? They will not have the benefit of a four-day experiential training to elicit their buy-in; they will only have me (and Rosalyn and Erin, who also attended the workshop) waxing prophetic and showing them the materials that at first glance seem utterly ridiculous.

Even if I only implement this approach one day a week, it will throw us further off the curriculum content pacing that the district expects. How can I demonstrate that this is beneficial enough to make it allowable?

What will the parents think? Savannah already had this experience when a parent contacted her saying, “So, I hear you don’t teach math anymore.” Many parents are already wary of Common Core math, and already feel beyond their ability to assist with junior high-level math. What will they think when we throw this at them?

And what will happen when it doesn’t go as I have planned? In fact, the only thing I am certain of is that it won’t go exactly as I have planned. What then?   Will I have the courage to stick with it? Will my students? Will my fellow teachers? Will my administrators?

It helped to discover this excerpt by Elisabeth Ramsey in the Exeter “Introductory Math Guide – Written For Students By Students.” It feels a bit as if she was writing directly to me regarding my apprehension about implementation, “I learned one of the more important lessons about math at Exeter; it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. Your classmates will be supportive of you, and tolerant of your questions. Chances are, if you had trouble with a problem, someone else in the class did too. Another thing to keep in mind is that the teacher expects nothing more than that you try to do a problem to the best of your ability. If you explain a problem that turns out to be incorrect, the teacher will not judge you harshly. They understand that no one is always correct, and they will not be angry or upset with you.”

And I continue to hear Savannah’s words echoing in my head, “Trust the Process.”

And Sami’s comment, after I acknowledged him for the powerful impact his words had on me, “Yeah, this is social justice work.”

So, remembering the feeling of: “I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them,” I am ready to take the plunge. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

“CUES Cast” Center for Urban Educational Studies

The Hamilton County Center for Urban Educational Studies explores best practices for teachers working in urban environments, especially in the greater Cincinnati / Hamilton County area.  Their mission is to provide support and resources to teachers searching to improve outcomes for their students.

Krista and I were honored to be interviewed for the UrbanESC podcast this April, where we had a chance to talk about the great work being done at Gamble Montessori every day, and to advocate for socio-emotional learning for all students as a way to equip them with the tools necessary to exhibit grit while also demonstrating grace and courtesy.

We are thankful to Paul Smith and Jason Haap for inviting us on their program, and asking thoughtful questions about the work we – and so many others – find profoundly fulfilling. We encourage you to follow this link to the podcast, then respond here: react, comment, question – we would love to hear from you.

What important questions did not get asked? What details did we leave out?

Here is the direct address of the podcast:  http://www.urbanesc.org/2016/04/04/angels-and-superheroes/

 

Lead by Helping Others Lead

-by Jack M. Jose

Getting suggestions has never been a problem for a school administrator. When I transitioned from being a teacher to being a principal, I noticed a significant change in how people started sentences when they spoke to me. Instead of offering me congratulations or encouragement, parents and friends were offering me … advice. Suddenly “You should …” became a common conversational opening. When I was a teacher I did not field many suggestions about what to do in my classroom. But now that I had completed 15 years of teaching, and my second post-Bachelor’s degree, and had been selected by a group of teachers, community members, and others to lead a school, I was clearly always in need of one more unsolicited idea. Principals, apparently, exude the impression that they are grasping for suggestions, and need input on every step, from the most mundane idea to ideas that would completely transform the nature of the school. Among suggestions I received: “You should paint that curb yellow,” “You should secretly rank your students and report that to colleges,” “You should do away with the bell schedule,” and “You should require everyone to get two credits of home economics.” Often suggestions are helpfully couched with evidence of dubious merit, usually stated “Like they did in my high school.”

Lead by Helping Others Lead

Of course, I am exaggerating the nature of the suggestions and (somewhat less so) their frequency. In fact, deftly handling suggestions is an important part of the work of any leader. The best leaders involve a wide array of individuals in the act of molding all aspects of the school, and find ways to let others lead.

More than a decade ago, prior to moving to Gamble, I was involved in discussions surrounding the reorganization of a public school in Cincinnati with an eye toward creating a teacher-led school. The goal was to create a system whereby teachers would collectively make the key decisions about the school – program structure, schedule, disciplinary decisions – and the administrator would serve largely to assist in making those decisions happen using his (my newly-acquired) administrative status. (Only now does it occur to me to have been something of a backhanded compliment. On the one hand, perhaps I was seen to be collaborative; on the other hand, perhaps I was perceived as potentially a weak administrator. I choose to go with the first understanding.) I know that when I was a teacher working daily with other trusted, hard-working teachers, constantly acting with the best interests of the students in mind, this seemed a logical conclusion in the evolution of schools. Who better to make the decisions than those of us closest to the “front lines”?

Well, the pie-in-the-sky hope did not come to fruition. And since then, time and again, the structure in CPS schools – and almost everywhere else – has remained largely static and hierarchical. There is a principal, one individual making the final call on the entire range of decisions; size and budget permitting, there may be one or more assistant principals; finally, there are teacher leaders, both in name and stipend, and in energy and spirit.

Though that particular effort to create a teacher-led school was unsuccessful, the concept itself is not misguided or even ill-fated. In fact, any school can be a teacher-led school, provided the administrator is willing to let it happen. Below are suggestions for a controlled, thoughtful way that an administrator can share authority with teachers. These are all strategies that have been applied regularly, albeit imperfectly, at Gamble Montessori. The first hurdle in utilizing these suggestions is having an administrator who wishes to involve teachers directly in the process of decision-making and responsibility-taking.

Sharing responsibility and decision-making with teachers, parents, and students is not a novel concept in education. Nor is it a new thought in any business model to involve front-line employees in making the most important decisions. Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People discusses this sharing of the work and decision-making as the difference between mere management and true leadership. Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, in The Art of Possibility, call it “Leading from any Chair,” and describe this as the most important aspect of leadership. In the end, it creates not just a better product, but a shared sense of accomplishment and ownership.

Listening to suggestions:

First, a leader must find an intentional way to elicit input from others involved in the task. Listening to suggestions is best exemplified by Zander’s own example, wherein he encourages the musicians in his orchestra to provide suggestions on how the music should be played. Those who are closest to the situation are in the best position to understand the problems and the changes that need to be made to affect the best outcome.

This does not mean taking every suggestion and implementing it, or even promising to implement it. It does mean that you have to develop facility for handling suggestions in a way that ensures they get fair treatment. Sometimes this means allowing a teacher to take leadership on an initiative that they have championed, and sometimes this means referring the idea to a relevant committee that is in position to make the suggested change.

Sharing responsibility:

To be most effective, a manager must not only listen to suggestions, but must create structures to implement important ideas and changes in a regular manner. At Gamble Montessori, there are few aspects of the structure and daily running of the school that have happened without the tacit approval, and sometimes the explicit approval, of a majority of the staff. This can be accomplished anywhere with a couple simple steps.

First, create committees to achieve certain goals or accomplish work that needs to be done during the school year. Though not an exhaustive list, three examples of this at Gamble, and at many schools, are:

  • Graduation committee, created to plan and implement the annual commencement ceremony;
  • Positive school culture committee, responsible for overseeing instruction around fair implementation of the school’s rules and policies for students, and the effectiveness of a particular approach;
  • Communications committee, responsible for maintaining the school’s website and social media presence.

Second, create a governing structure where the principal is a critical component, but not the only one. An example of this is an instructional leadership team (ILT). In Cincinnati Public Schools an ILT has a defined composition and roles that require a certain percentage of teachers, parent membership, and the presence of the principal to create a quorum. Such a structure similar to an ILT at any school could be used to make a wide variety of decisions. The wider the changes they are empowered to make within boundaries, the better. These should not be minor decisions; this committee is not best used to decide when the school play should happen (that is a job for a sub-committee). The ILT should be used to make substantial decisions such as setting the focus of annual improvement efforts, and monitoring the success of teams and individuals in achieving the goals that were decided upon.

However, the simple creation of a governing structure is not the goal. A leader must commit to giving those structures the space they need to do their work effectively. That means allowing the committee to structure the work that comes out of it – including the Principal’s work. I occasionally lament that our ILT exists to create my to-do list, but it is an empty complaint. I understand that to lead by example, I have to be willing to allow the decisions of the group to become my work. I must also enforce decisions when they become the work of the group.

Establishing priorities:

One replicable way that we have become transparently teacher-led is in collectively establishing priorities for key decisions. There are many “hidden decisions” that get made in the daily process of running a school, or any business. Every phone call handled by a secretary or returned by a teacher helps set a tone for the school (ask Zappos or Wondermade Marshmallows about the importance of good customer service.) Grading decisions made daily by individual teachers have large impacts on student success and outward signs of student success like grade point averages, which in turn affect college acceptances. Even though these decisions are powerful for individuals and their sense of connection to the school, they are made away from the public eye, in the privacy of our classrooms or dining rooms. These are the kinds of actions for which there must be a framework that establishes priorities. Not everything on a teacher’s to-do list can be the most important thing.

Another example of hidden decision-making comes when we schedule students. With only 7 classes in a school day, over two semesters, a course choice in high school has ripple effects for everything that happens afterward. I became aware of this early on, when the school was small enough that I did the scheduling by hand each July. Where a class fell in the school day impacted the ability of the student to take (or not take) other elective classes, or determined whether a team could have common planning time during the day. Several years ago I listed the factors that drove course selection and decision-making during scheduling, and I challenged our ILT to prioritize these factors. Earlier this year we revisited the process.

We used our leadership structure to involve everyone in determining our scheduling priorities by defining key terms, and taking an initial list back to our constituencies. We came back together with questions and suggestions for all of the scheduling factors. An example of the items that might run up against each other during scheduling, are “expanded elective choices,” “reduce class sizes,” and “access to remediation.” We then decided on a voting structure, created ballots, and voted as a staff, creating a final prioritized list. This list will guide those of us who schedule students as we make decisions, allowing us to do it independently and in a way that is consistent with the wishes of the school.

This process is time-consuming. It took us a couple of weeks. However, the result is well worth it. Ultimately everyone got to weigh in on our school’s scheduling priorities, and collectively we made a decision that will guide many behind-the-scenes decisions made by administrative staff while scheduling individual students and classes.

When you become a leader, you are going to get suggestions. Creating a shared responsibility system for handling suggestions is going to help everyone feel empowered and supported in making everyday decisions, and it will determine whether you are successful.