Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Notes from Visit to UPENN

UPENN: Philadelphia
Grit Workshop: Oct. 27th, 2013
Take Away Point: Early adolescence provides a powerful opportunity for individuals to grow their social, achievement, and emotional skills.

Recommended Reading: Can Perseverance be Taught? by Angela Duckworth

This past weekend I met with a small group of educational leaders and researchers at UPENN in Philadelphia. It was the first of eight meetings. I am happy to report that the group was friendly, caring, and focused on improving education for our youth. And our leader, researcher Angela Duckworth is a kind, humble, and a thoughtful guide as we work through important educational approaches, curriculum, and policy questions. Here are a few highlights of what I learned over the weekend:

1) Flood the Transitions: Our group's conversation highlighted new brain research that keys on the unique opportunity that is early adolescence. While brain researchers have long known that the ages 0-3 are crucial in brain and disposition development, it seems that early adolescence provides a second major window of opportunity for development. In other words, it may be true that much of our trust in others, self-regulation ability, impulse control, and abilities to handle stress are determined in those first three years of life, but researchers are finding that adolescence is also a time when major growth can take place with these skills. That is why have a school culture and school expectations that encourage this growth are so important in middle and early high school. My suggestion is for us to Flood the Transitions. By that I mean we should really highlight 6th and 9th grade as crucial times in students' lives. Perhaps for the first few weeks of school, all adults and older students should rally around these age groups to help set up positive thinking habits, (i.e. growth mindset), goal setting, quality work habits (turning off cell phone during home work), and help build that self control. Core curriculum could be tailored to support the effort, (i.e. book selections) staff could be temporarily moved to increase focus, and direct instruction could take place in freshman academies and teacher advisory programs in addition to the invaluable micro-moments of authentic learning.  

2) Scaffolding Versus Coddling: One of the themes that has come up frequently for me over the past few years is the concern over enabling students and creating an entitled generation of youth. The issue came up again this weekend at UPENN. It seems that while "no excuse" charter schools have proven to be very effective in improving test scores and getting their students to college...they have not proved effective in keeping students in college. Their concern, is the same concern I have heard while sitting at the teacher's lunch table at Enosburg Falls High School, or around the dinner table during the holidays with my family. That is, are we raising a generation of coddled students? Although well intentioned, are hard-working teachers and parents doing TOO much for students and making them dependent in the process? Its a tricky balance, but an important one to consider as a staff and as a community.

Ms. Duckworth in her discussion with KIPP founder Dave Levin offered that the answer to those questions regarding enabling his students might be, "No." It seems that the gap their students are not bridging is learning to ask for support while away from KIPP and transfer their skills to new environments and new problems. In other words, achieving students of all demographics need ongoing support, just some know how to seek it, and others do not. It seems that for some reason, his students are not developing the skill set needed to seek out the support they need in new environments for new challenges.

*You know Rocky has grit! 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Visit to Consult with Researcher Angela Duckworth

This last weekend in October will be the first of 8 visits I will make to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The monthly Sunday discussions are being hosted by researcher Angela Duckworth to answer the question of how to implement grit curriculum into schools and school culture. I will be meeting with a group of about 20 participants that include researchers, community leaders, teachers, and principals from around the northeast and beyond. The group includes but is not limited to folks from Kipp Philadelphia, School of the Future, and the Yes Prep Public Schools. I've posted Ms. Duckworth's most well known TED talk that explains her work.

She also was recently (Autumn 2013) chosen as a fellow for the MacArthur Genius Award in support of her work. In the following video she explains a bit more about the direction that she believes her latest research is headed. I am honored and excited to be apart of the learning process in the coming months.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Notes from Paul Tough's Keynote Speech

Paul Tough: Author of How Children Succeed
Keynote Speech: Oct. 17th, 2013
Take Away Points: Adversity Gap & The Need for Adults to Model, "Bouncing Back"

The 2013 Minnesota School Teacher's conference featured Paul Tough as one of their keynote speakers. The speech was held in the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul Minnesota. Mr. Tough did a great job as a keynote speaker. He reviewed some of the important research points in his book which were emphasized by personal stories. One area that Mr. Tough added to his speech since writing his book was a concept he calls the "adversity gap". 

In reading his book, parents and teachers alike couldn't help but surmise that one of the conclusions was that students/children need adversity in their lives to succeed. He joked that parents had been approaching him to ask what kind of adversity they could manufacture for their kids! He explained that there is no need to manufacture adversity, but rather allow our children to work their own problems more often. And he emphasized that low income students, or students that have suffered trauma, certainly DO NOT need MORE adversity in their lives. This distance between our privileged students versus our students living in extreme poverty or dangerous situations is what he calls the "adversity gap" and just like our achievement gap, it needs to be closed in order for student learning to be optimized. 
One thing that teachers and parents can do in order to help our youth develop more grit, and perseverance is to model it ourselves. Too often adults believe that they must appear perfect for students. Teachers fear making mistakes at the board, parents work towards seeming all-knowing for their children. Changing this thinking, and modeling "bouncing back" from mistakes or failure for our youth is one of the most simple and fundamental steps we can take to improve those skills for the next generation. 

A Couple of Ideas from Delong Middle School

Delong Middle School: Eau Claire, WI
October 15th, 2013

Delong Middle School is large, high-functioning middle school in Eau Claire, WI. While stopping in to watch my nephew's football game, I saw a few gems posted on their walls. I took a few photos to capture the idea of using our own middle school students to create posters to represent character. I also liked their PBIS card rewards. Both are quick usable ideas at EFMHS.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Notes from Birchwood Blue Hills Charter School

Birchwood Blue Hills Charter School Grades 7-12
October 16th, 2013
One Sentence Take Away: Vested interest equals engagement, engagement equals motivation.

Birchwood Blue Hills Charter School (BBHCS) is a rural Wisconsin charter school that serves nearly 30 students in grades 7-12. Founding teachers Jenny Landes and Todd Brunclik, along with Susan Leeper guide students through self-directed education, uniquely tailored to each student. Frequently students combine their independent work with a few traditional classes from the nearby traditional high school for math or foreign language. BBHCS is a member of the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network (WISN).

My first half hour was spent sitting in on advisory time with the students. I was impressed with their kindness and welcoming nature. They asked relevant questions and then each shared a story of a time when they showed perseverance in their own lives. After our introductions students went to work! I was a bit awestruck to see each student jump to work on their own projects with genuine energy and focus. The cross-section of grades and types of students became a very comfortable work setting in which students paced themselves, sought out resources, reviewed their progress, stopped for breaks as needed (going to kitchen to make microwave popcorn!) and produced excellent work. I was impressed by the amount trust between students and teachers. One 10th grade student was working on a project about how the sailboats in the American Cup could find the fastest route. She was considering wind changes, the technology of the sailboats, the tide pools and more. Thanks Taisia for explaining your project to me! Here is a photo of what she was working out on the whiteboard:

For some other examples of student work, click: Samples of BBHCS student work.

Students work towards a 32 credit graduation requirement despite the traditional area high school only requiring 28. Students' transcripts reflect credits earned within the given standard the work falls within. Credits are determined by the number of hours logged and the quality of the work. Rubrics and conferences between the student and teachers determine the amount of assigned credit. When a student proposes a project they must seek out the corresponding state and/or common-core standards that the project will meet. Founding teacher Todd Brunclik explained that any credit earned on a transcript was really reflective of mastery level work, or work that would normally be considered A or B quality. The students and teachers utilize an online platform called Project Foundry to help support this flexible pathway, proficiency based grading, and project based learning model. 

Notes from Badger Rock Middle School

Badger Rock Middle School grades 6-8
Oct. 14th, 2013
One Sentence Take Away: "The impoverished have no choice but to persevere."

Badger Rock Middle School is charter school in Madison, WI that currently serves about 100 students in grades 6th through 8th. The student demographic is largely minority students, a high number of ELL students, and mostly students of free and reduced lunch status. Badger Rock is unique in that it is a project based learning environment. Each day students have significant time built into their schedule to pursue a project of their choosing. They also spend each Wednesday out in the community or working in their own large garden. Badger Rock Middle School is apart of the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network (WISN).

In the morning, I spent some time with their English teacher, Mr. Stephen Perez who demonstrated what a 21st century ELA middle school classroom can look like. Mr. Perez emphasized what he called reciprocal accountability to ensure respect in his classroom. During my visit he had 7th graders working on their writing skills by reviewing a Langston Hughes short story (Thank You Ma'am) as if they were writing a news article on the piece. He provided what a "2" paper would look like, as well as a what "3" paper would look like. Students worked on their mac-books in google-docs and edmodo to review the provided documents, rubric, and begin their own writing for submission. Students were required to seek instruction out by reading his directions and examples carefully and then raise their hands for more individualized instruction if necessary. When discussing resiliency and perseverance, Mr. Perez suggested that his students HAD to show perseverance because the impoverished have no other choice. Students also reported feeling more motivated to persist because they were able to be more self-directed on their timelines to complete work and chose their work more often than in traditional settings.  

In the afternoon, I spent some time watching 8th graders present on their most recently finished self-directed projects. The students had been working on their projects for about two weeks. On this occasion their projects had to have an improving the community's environmental practices theme. Students presented on projects that included refurbishing old desktop computers, appropriate disposal of E-waste, reusing old clothing to make pillows and dolls, and one group had successfully brought new recycling bins to the playground/park area. I was impressed by how many students had practiced the skills of communicating with adults over the phone to have expert consultation. Thank you to Principal Tim Bubon and Sarah Hackett from WISN for hosting my visit!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Notes from visit to Polaris Academy in Chicago

Polaris Academy K-8
Oct. 11th, 2013
One Sentence Take Away: Your school culture is largely determined by what you celebrate.

This week I visited Polaris Academy in Chicago. Polaris is a K-8 charter school on the west side of Chicago with over 400 students. Polaris is an expeditionary learning school, which means that its philosophy is built upon student led learning with authentic hands on learning throughout the wider community. For example, last year, the 7th graders at Polaris wrote and published a book honoring members of their community that work to "keep the peace" and stop gun violence in the Chicago area. Here is link to a news story about their project: WGN news clip.

I was welcomed by a caring staff including (but not limited to!) head of school, Michelle Navarre, director of academics Roel Vivit, and director of operations and finance Carol Clavadetscher. A number of kind, polite, and helpful students gave me a tour of the school and served as a student panel to answer some of my questions.

My primary question for Polaris was how do you teach character? Here are a few key points I took away that help answer that question:

Polaris developed five key characteristics to value which are: Compassion, Integrity, Critical Thinking, Active Citizenship, and Exploration. Explanations and examples of the five characteristics are posted throughout the school, for example:

Polaris taught those characteristics directly by discussing them, explaining them, adding them into curriculum in a multitude of ways, including text choices and using a teacher advisory model which they call, "crew".

Polaris celebrates those characteristics consistently. Using methods such as "who was an all-star today in class" and other student nomination structures, students are celebrated at every turn for exemplify the five points. In fact, on every Friday the school gathers in the gym to honor students who will become "light leaders". "Light leaders are students who embody one of the five traits so well that they are honored as an example for their classmates to always represent that characteristic. In my time there it was clear to me that this was a very big honor which the staff and students took seriously. Nominations come from students that are then discussed in staff meetings to determine final say. Here is a picture of the board of all the light leaders in the school...only a few students have been honored for more than one characteristic.

Students can also give each other "points" of recognition for smaller helpful moments by filling out a little cut out hand. The pictures below provide an examples:

Overall, I was very impressed with Polaris. They clearly have very dedicated staff and the students were helpful, positive, and friendly. By emphasizing and celebrating the characteristics that the staff themselves decided were the most valuable students have a high level of "buy in." The school has a safe learning environment for students to explore and grow in a healthy way without worrying the pressure to never make mistakes or not be good at something right away. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Visit to Polaris Academy K-8 in Chicago

I'm looking forward to spending the day tomorrow with Polaris Academy! Polaris is an expeditionary learning school and is experiencing positive gains for the students by all measures. Here is a short video from their website, explaining the school: