Learning Pods For All

Learning Pods For All

Heading into the 2020 school year, in the throws of the coronavirus pandemic, “learning pods” are gaining interest by families looking to avoid breaks in learning for their kids.  Pods are an especially attractive idea for resourced elementary parents who see a need for regular socialization and continued learning, while limiting exposure to an entire school. Some parents need space to work themselves, without having to facilitate minute by minute learning of their own children.  Others are simply disappointed with the version of schooling their children were provided last spring, and they fear the worst, headed into the new school year. Some pods are led by professionals, teachers, and micro schools, while others are organized in a co-op fashion by parents themselves. Either way, they are gaining more and more traction across the nation as schools ready for a new, atypical school year.

Here’s the Case for Pods

Students need direction and support to thrive in distance learning. Some parents are taking their children’s education into their own hands, creating small groups to ensure their children get in-person learning. Students benefit social emotionally through interaction with peers. Pods balance limited peer interaction with acceptable safety precautions.  Most models plan to host small groups of students outdoors, or in large open air rooms. A Japanese Study of over 100 cases found that exposure to COVID19 is twenty times less likely in outdoor environments than indoor settings.  If schools and districts won’t provide acceptable levels of support, parents should rally together and pool resources to provide the best possible outcomes for their children. Communicated both cynically and candidly by a close friend, “Schools should just figure their sh** out and adapt to make a meaningful learning program. Unfortunately, we’re forced into this situation while still paying taxes for the schools.”  In short, many parents feel like they must take these measures to ensure high quality learning for their children.

Here’s the Case Against Pods

Organically developed pods of students will benefit resourced families and widen the already stark achievement gap. Families who can afford to pay teachers, college students, or other qualified adults will have a mountain sized advantage in learning.  This design unintentionally regresses our system to a “separate but equal” imbalance of schooling that benefits some, while leaving others behind (Brown v. Board of Education).  Children of socioeconomically challenged families, and essential workers will bear the effects of this imbalance of support.  And these imbalances, no doubt,  will correlate to historically underperforming sub groups of students, including African American, LatinX and students with disabilities. Learning pods, increasingly facilitated by entrepreneurial outfits, come with a high cost.  According to MIT, “the cost is $1,200 to $1,500 per week per pod, depending on pod size, hours, and location.”  The Hudson Lab School, recently highlighted by New York Times cited “Each pod for grades K-4 will cost $125,000 for the academic year, or $68,750 for a five-month commitment.” For many families, learning pods will not be an option to consider. While well meaning, pods are not open to all families across neighborhoods and classes.  Most often, they are formed out of already established friendships, teams, and neighborhoods. By definition, they are leaving some of our most valuable, vulnerable children out.  And because “those kids are our kids too,” we all stand to lose.  

A Call for Equity

Perhaps this is a call to public schools who are charged with serving all of our students. In providing access to a rigorous education for all, we know that some children need more than others.  Children shouldn’t get the “same thing” across the board.  On the contrary, students with less advantage, more trauma, increased learning needs, and more formidable barriers to access need the extra support.  Maybe pods should be designed for them, rather than for resourced and over-resourced families. As stated in a recent New York Times Op-Ed:  “All parents will do what is best for their own children, especially in a crisis. As poor — and, therefore, many minority — parents have fewer resources to help their children, the state should come in to address the inequity.”

What if We Embraced the Idea of Pods for All Children?

The ideal state is for all children to be served in a school house, with differentiated support, so that all students achieve and reach their highest potential.  But current health metrics, limitations of staff, and the recent direction of California Governor Newsom tell us that this will not happen in the short term. Instead, we will open the 2020 school year in a “distance learning” format where all children will receive synchronous and asynchronous learning through the internet.  Parents will be courted as deeper partners in the education of their children. And we will experience a phased in return to schools as the health threats subside.

Since this is the case, why don’t we embrace the idea of “pods” for all of our children? What if we followed up requisite synchronous learning in the morning, with targeted in person pod-sized targeted support in the afternoons? Since this is the best thing that resourced parents can provide children, can’t we attempt to provide this for all of our children?  

It wouldn’t be an easy task.  It would require us to locate possible outdoor/ open air venues where students could gather.  We’d have to roster classes beyond groups of twenty four, into subgroups that could function as “pods.”  We’d have to account for residential locations and family limitations.  We may have to partner with community childcare organizations, and leverage volunteers in ways that we haven’t considered yet. Additionally, and probably most radically, educators would have to re-imagine their roles.  We’d have to see ourselves as mobile, flexible educators who are willing to go to great lengths to see all of our children succeed.  But isn’t that who we are?  Nobody got into education thinking we would raise through the ranks and get independently rich.  We got into education to help children, to improve their life trajectories.  Has there ever been a time when this call to help has been stronger and more compelling?  If not, then we cannot, and should not, cling to our historic view of what schooling should look like, at least not in the short term.  At least not while children we love, our children, stand to face gaps in their education that could set them back for years.  

This isn’t the only innovative solution floating out there right now.  And there isn’t one solution to this complex challenge. But in times of crisis, when so much is on the line, we should go back to what we believe most:  All children can learn and deserve a chance to be prepared for a world that we cannot yet imagine.  We can’t accept that some children will be highly prepared, while others languish in their apartments half engaging in zoom calls and haphazardly completing a handful of google classroom assignments.  We have to create a plan for all kids, as if they were are own kids.  After all, they are.

A Parking Lot Fight that Pushed Us Forward

A Parking Lot Fight that Pushed Us Forward

Two employees got into a parking lot skuffle right when I was walking by. Chests puffed. Words and phrases got sharp. Tension was on the rise. Both of them are passionate. They are committed to our school’s mission.

Caught off gaurd, I made a quick decision to keep walking. While surprised in the moment, I reminded myself that these two would find a healthy way through whatever conflict they are having in the moment. That had to. It’s who we are.

I concluded they needed some space to do it. And they didn’t need their boss stepping in to take sides. So I kept walking.

On my eleventh step in the opposite direction, I heard something that warmed encouraged my soul.

“Hey. This isn’t going how I want it to,” one said to the other. “Let’s start over.”

“Hey. This isn’t going how I want it to.”

“Yeah…..Lets” the other returned serve. Within minutes the conversation was over. Both were back to baseline. And all three of us continued serving students and families, in the parking lot at dismissal.

At the root of their argument was something very small: Whose responsibility it was to open the gate for cars on a minimum day?

The implications of their resolved argument was something huge too, for a couple of reasons. 1. We are becoming a healthy school culture where conflict is expected, and compromise is pushed for. 2. We are further than where I want us to be from being a TEAM where leadership is distributive and ownership is shared.

1. We are becoming a healthy school culture where conflict is expected, and compromise is pushed for. Conflict should be expected, even embraced, in organizational cultures that are pushing hard towards improvement. It is evidence that team members feel safe enough to bring their best ideas, and beliefs to the table. Conflict is also an expected dynamic in any family, team, or organization where lives are lived out in a shared space. Patrick Lencioni, in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” points to healthy conflict, as an essential dynamic of healthy teams. Where conflict is disallowed, compliance is an expectation, divergent ideas are squashed, and unhealth blossoms. Team members go underground with their complaints and their brilliant ideas. People get ‘cagey.’ And everyone suffers.

Navigating conflict in healthy ways is important for sure. But seeing conflict happen in the open, followed by repair and reconciliation, is a thing to celebrate!

2. We further than I want to be from being a team, where leadership is distributive and ownership is shared. I long to lead teams motivated by a compelling vision for equity and empowered to make decisions that will bring us to that reality.

In this instance, both employees deferred to the rules, and a boss. Neither had explicit responsibility to open the gate. In fact, the procedure hadn’t been articulated at all. But instead of jumping in to address the immediate need, both employees deflected to the other. They wondered about the letter of the manual. And they got tangled up with one another.

Employees who embody mission, exhibit ownership, and assume trust, don’t have to think thrice about small things. They make decisions that are in the best interest of the students and then reflect on the outcomes at a later point.

In unhealthy school organizations, all decisions big and small have to come from the lips of the school leader. People act skittishly and fear making a wrong decision. This isn’t who we want to be.

“I am so proud of you!” I affirmed one of the employees in the skuffle. “You recognized that things were getting elevated and suggested a do-over. That is generous, mature, and healthy. That is who we are!”

“Let’s also revisit this at our next check in.” “You are a leader on this campus and don’t need an okay from me to open that gate. I trust you to do what is right for us.”

And so we continue to push towards a healthy organizational culture that has space for conflict and trust for good-faith decision making across the team.

Squeaky Wheels and Squawking Principals

Squeaky Wheels and Squawking Principals

This past school year, I’ve learned that my learning community depends on me to be a ‘squeaky wheel.’ But I need to be careful of becoming a ‘squawking principal.’

As the leader of a relatively small school in an enormously large school district, I’ve had to grow in my ability and willingness to advocate, call out for help, and present data that demonstrates our need for critical supports. Here’s what it has looked like for us this year:

  • Compiling data and trends that demonstrate a drastic increase in newcomers and, thus, a need for added support (personnel and curriculum) from the Office of Language Acquisition.
  • Firmly and politely asking for special consideration to open up another classroom, after all on-site remedies have been exhausted.
  • Bringing in district level architects and safety personnel for advice and support to address safety challenges
  • Voicing displeasure about a board vote to close a pre-school
  • Coupling requests for facility improvement, on the heels of self-help volunteer work days to better our learning environment.
  • Respectfully pointing out inequities in the level of arts programs, compared to neighboring schools, by communicating a desire to grow arts in our community.
  • Anchoring every single request in the stated vision of our school district, “To see quality neighborhoods in each and every school.”
  • Choosing to make first contacts with key personnel in person or over the phone ahead of the incoming email request.

I’ve also seen and experienced where disproportionate and inartful asking can undermine critical relationships and push away partners. Here’s what this might look like:

  • Venting to Human Resource personnel about contractually binding processes that are already in place.
  • Voicing needs in the form of complaints.
  • Neglecting to thank district staff when they have ‘gone to bat’ for us.
  • Failing to recognize that partner schools and leaders are facing similar limitations.
  • Ripping off emails riddled with critique and demands.
  • Becoming the leader that district support staff avoids in a large gathering.

We know that teachers who are “warm demanders” get the most out of their students. This principle applies to principals too.

Be the squeaky wheel. Your learning community depends on your voice.

Avoid being the squawky principal. You’ll likely see limited resource increases. And your reputation will may just limit the supports your students desperately need.

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

Part 3 of 3: Schedule for Equity

Since we are driven to deliver on the promise of public education, I want to see three seismic shifts explored and launched over the next two school years.

Catch up on this three part series:

  1. Becoming Competency Based
  2. Multiple models for Learning
  3. Schedule for Equity

It’s becoming clear that a return to school will not include the entire student body, at one time.  In fact, recommendations from the San Diego County Office of Education advise a phased in approach to welcoming students back on to campus. While this approach will provide safeguards for students and staff, I think it will provide educational benefit to students who thrive with small group instruction and personalized, differentiated support.  This article suggests students may be more focused, productive, and primed for learning, given a shorter school day.

What if student “time on campus” was dictated by their need for individualized support?  We now know that all students can access a lecture, multimedia presentation, or primary source documents on their own, as they do now during distance learning.  But some students need more space and opportunity to discuss viewpoints, revisit articles, and frame arguments.  

What if the reason students came to campus was clear, purposeful, and targeted?  Imagine a group of twelve students, working in groups of three to conduct a chemistry lab, then returning home for a write up.  Consider a group of fourth grade newcomers, gathering with their teacher for a twenty five minute designated ELD lesson.  Perhaps a group of first grade emerging readers comes to school for a guided reading lesson Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and stays for a writer’s workshop lesson, with a different guided reading group that overlaps in time?

Schedule for Equity

As we plan a return to the school house, I propose we schedule for equity. Specifically, we should re-design targeted support systems so that students who need the most, get the most. 

Here are a few considerations we should make in designing targeted support systems that take individual student needs into account:

Acknowledge that educators are still our best resource

While students may end up getting different doses of teacher face time and support, we should be clear that teacher directed learning is still king.  Nothing beats the connection, care, encouragement and expertise that teachers offer our students.  True, we can approximate some of those benefits through recordings, live meetings, calls, and written messages.  But we will never get away from the empirical reality that teacher effectiveness is the most predictive factor in student achievement and growth.

While students may end up getting different doses of teacher face time and support, we should be clear that teacher directed learning is still king. 

Justin Phillips

Since teacher presence and support is powerful, we need to prioritize who gets access to this resource, and how often.  This resource is even more potent, given the reduced ratios of students to teachers that will be limited in a phased return to school. With equity at the center of our design, students who need the most should get the most.

Prioritize SAI for students with disabilities

Perhaps the most detrimental impact of COVID on education, when all is said and done, will be the impact on students with unique learning needs, those who receive specialized academic instruction (SAI).  When we design systems of support for students, these learners should get priority.  Even with modified schedules across the school, we should be able to deliver supports that strong enough to see achievement of standards based goals.  

One positive result of distance learning, is we are seeing special educators (Ed Specialists, Related Service providers, and paraeducators) engage creatively to support students in new ways.  On our school  team, staff members are collaborating at even higher levels to ensure students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are receiving the highest benefit possible.  This looks like speech pathologists attending synchronous online classroom meetings, ed specialists co planning lessons that are posted on the Google Classroom, and paraeducators being leveraged as supportive in new ways.  Let’s build on this progress so that students experience inclusive, supportive learning for each and every student.

Provide dedicated space and time for emerging bilingual students to grow in their language skills

English Language Learners across the nation, and at our school, will likely emerge with large gaps in learning, with increased ground to make up, when health threats are eliminated.  During ‘normal’ times, students were battling to access grade-level curriculum that is delivered in language that is less than accessible to them.  A 30-40 minute period of designated English Language Development once provided space to explore language, and (often) a revisiting of material that was presented just once.  Now, in first weeks of the distance learning launch, this support looks like extra support materials posted on a learning platform like Google Classroom or Seesaw. To make things worse, while sheltering in place, too many are trapped in homes where fluent English isn’t spoken, to no fault of their own.

What ELLs need is dedicated space to explore language.  They deserve this dedicated time.  They need to hear models of English fluent speakers.  They need low pressure opportunities to pronounce, and mispronounce words.  They need to see writing exemplars, and be prompted with sentence frames.  Some need phonics support and others need guided reading.  We must prioritize this group of learners as we design systems of support that provide the most support to the students who need it most.

Guard against developing tracks of remediation

Our instincts in response to this break in educational continuity will be to assess and remediate.  And while it will be important to see where students are at, we are going to have to proactively guard against creating two tracks for students, one to remediate those who are “behind” and another for those who are at or above grade level.  We are learning a lot about how to increase 1)colaboration 2)communication 3)crtitical thinking and 4) creativity during this time. Our methods are advancing such that students will be increasingly engaged in relevant problem solving and learning.  But these approaches are not, and should not be reserved for more accomplished students only.  All students deserve access to engaging challenges that require the use of 21st Century skills.  Drill and kill and “sit and get” approaches should not be redirected to learners with the most gaps.  These students too, deserve relevant, rigorous, and excellent learning experiences.

We are going to have to proactively guard against creating two tracks for students, one to remediate those who are “behind” and another for those who are at or above grade level.

Justin Phillips

Use what we already know about individual student engagement in distance learning

One of the most maddening, yet exhilarating challenges facing us is the challenge of designing a system that works for all, while conditions are variable.  The National Institute for School Leadership (NISL) uses a concept “VUCA” in describing the reality 21st Century School Leaders face.  “VUCA” recognizes that variability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity  are realities that threaten progress, but can be overcome with persistence, calm, and calculated approaches.  Right now, we are out in the middle of a “VUCA” storm!  

Right now, we are out in the middle of a “VUCA” storm!  

Justin phillips

The good news is that we have valuable data that can help us plan a way forward.  Our profession is comfortable with action research.  And action research promises the most viable way forward. We have objective information about overall participation rates.  We have spreadsheets, by school, class and student that tell us who still faces barriers to logging on.  We can pinpoint where computer and internet connections are in place for students.  And we know which students are engaging at deep levels.  We need to use what we know to inform our design going forward, even if we learn more in the future and make future 

True, there is a lot we don’t know yet.  We don’t fully understand factors impacting student motivation.  There are realities in homes that we are still don’t fully see. We don’t know why a small percentage of students are still missing from our virtual classrooms.  We don’t know how equipped or able families are to partner with us in the learning.  We don’t know yet how to best position resource staff for maximum impact over the long term.  

To approach answering these questions, we need to find ways to get proximate, for the most pressing challenges we face.  This is challenging, given the current state and county health recommendations. But it’s not impossible.  Getting close to individual students, asking good questions, and listening well will lead to the empathy and creative solutions that will help us reach each and every student.  Teachers also hold valuable insight.  Each of their interactions and attempts to reach students will tell us something.  While we are compelled to move with expediency towards a plan, we have to remain vigilant in getting proximate, asking good questions, listening well, and capturing subjective data to light the way forward.

Getting close to individual students, asking good questions, and listening well will lead to the empathy and creative solutions that will help us reach each and every student. 

Justin Phillips

This is a moment in public education, pregnant with opportunity. Because it is a large and vexing adaptive challenge, we shouldn’t be looking for the one correct solution. On the contrary, there are multiple solutions to adaptive challenges. The past few posts have explored three such responses that I believe we should consider seriously. We haven’t thrown in the towel on the promise of public education- to reach and teach every child in the United States, regardless of demography. We remain committed to breathing life into the dream that all God’s children will gain the ability to pursue a future of life, liberty and happiness. Equitable access to quality education is a precondition for that pursuit. And we can use this moment to pave a smoother onramp for some of our most promising, yet vulnerable students. Let’s get to paving that road!

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

Part 2 of 3: Multiple Models for Learning

This is our moment to re-imagine education.  Our efforts to pivot ‘on a dime’ beginning mid-March have been impressive. Basic needs are being met in high volumes, in collaboration and through school delivery systems. Our district just surpassed 1 million meals distributed to students experiencing food insecurity. Devices and connectivity have made it to the vast majority of homes throughout our city (100% at our school). But the dust is settling. And barriers to authentic, meaningful and consistent learning are becoming clear. Beyond that, inequities that have plagued our practice persist. The achievement gap is widening and we must act. Now is the time to dream, to take risks, and to keep our most vulnerable, promising students at the center of our designs.

Since we are driven to deliver on the promise of public education, I want to see three seismic shifts explored and launched over the next two school years.

In the previous post, I argued that now is the time to make moves towards implementing a competency based system, that honors student interests, individualized pacing, and more precise support for students. While this proposed shift is major, it holds promise for increasing student autonomy, competency, and ultimately preparedness for a 21st century that is beyond what we are able to imagine today.

A second seismic shift that deserves exploration and possible implementation is:

Let’s offer multiple/ blended models of learning in the short and long term.

Let’s offer multiple/ blended models of learning in the short and long term.

Across our nation, state, and state we will be forced to rethink how we gather for learning experiences.  Today, our district publicized preliminary plans to allow all students to return to campus, in different configurations. More resources are needed and being sought from the state however. With the need to keep gatherings small, schools will likely be forced to offer alternating days of in-person instruction.  This article details a few versions of rotating schedules that may allow for a safe opening of schools.

Recognizing that we face a multi-dimensional challenge, providing some choice to parents is the right thing to do.  Based on marital status, employment realities, and childcare options, families are bound to have clear needs and strong opinions about what may work for them.  Considering health realities and vulnerabilities, some families may delay returning students to traditional school settings.  A number of our families may opt for a distance learning (exclusively) model until an effective vaccine is discovered and widely distributed. We should accommodate and honor families in these situations.

To pull this off, we’ll have to identify “musts” and “mays” for both students and educators. We’ll have to be ready to shift all three categories of resources: land, labor and capital.  And we’ll have to innovate supportive structures, like childcare centers by area, so that teachers with young children can give our students their undivided attention.

In the short term, student and staff safety will drive priorities and limitations. This makes sense. Long term, we will have to respond to the fact that many of our students are excelling because of the shifts. Last week, key teacher leaders on our site instructional leadership team shared some encouraging new realities that are worth finding ways to preserve:

  • Numerous students who were once passive and quiet are showing up to small groups, asking deep questions, showing signs of increased motivation and actively seeking support.
  • Numerous students are turning in work with increased quality, due to the flexibility they are provided.
  • Struggling students are benefiting from modifications and adaptations to assignments that are possible through new technology platforms and increased teacher prep time.
  • Parents are increasingly knowledgeable, involved, and supportive with their children.
  • General education and special education teachers are collaborating at levels.
  • Teachers are becoming more targeted with their teaching objectives, focusing on critical concepts and leaving behind less relevant material.
  • Teachers are growing exponentially in their skills and abilities, due in part to a new reality.

We can and should hold on to what is working for students, parents and teachers. Going back to “school as normal” would undermine efforts to reach students in new and meaningful ways. In the short term, because public health realities are variable, we should offer multiple models of schooling for our students. In the long term, because students learn differently, we should offer multiple models that provide choice and promise increased motivation for learning. It will, no doubt, impact learners we once struggled with. And this may be a doorway that leads to more equitable outcomes across our student population.

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

Part 1 of 3 Becoming Competency Based

It’s becoming more and more clear that we will not return to “school as normal” in the short term.

The fact is, ‘normal school’ circa March 2020 won’t ever be back. Nor should it.

The fact is, ‘normal school’ circa March 2020 won’t ever be back. Nor should it. While none of us signed up for such a drastic and sudden transformation of our educational delivery system, we have stepped up to the challenge.  By many measures, we are succeeding. Staff have gained skills in short time. High percentages of students have devices and connectivity, prerequisites for distance learning.  Collaboration is multifaceted and growing.

If we are honest though, the “COVID crash” is a real thing.  Most alarming,there will be a widening of the achievement gap, which leaves too many of our promising children behind.  In reality, even disparate outcomes for historically underperforming students persisted at sickening levels even when we were conducting school in a traditional context. But now, things are getting even worse; Students who struggled in face to face settings, are struggling mightily with digital learning.  

This is our moment to re-imagine education.  

This is our moment to re-imagine education.  In a reflexive response to a sudden pandemic, our implementation of distance learning has been less than consistent across states, counties, districts, schools and classrooms (In our district, teachers are provided three implementation options for delivery of instruction).  And while public health models project varying scenarios for our next two years (see “This is the Future of the Pandemic”), now is the time to dream, to take risks, and to keep our most vulnerable, promising students at the center of our designs. 

Since we are driven to deliver on the promise of public education, I want to see three seismic shifts explored and launched over the next two school years.

1. Move to a competency based system of advancement towards a meaningful high school diploma.

Our efforts to educate every young person in America are rooted deeply in the belief that all men (and women and young people) are created equal with inalienable rights to pursue life liberty and happiness. We, perhaps too easily, assent that all children have this opportunity.  The problem is, publicly reported achievement data suggests otherwise. We see too many students dropping out before they complete high school.  We see disproportionate levels of students of color underperforming, compared to white peers.  We see English language learners making less than expected progress.  And we see students matriculating through grade levels, even conferred diplomas, without demonstrating baseline prerequisite skills that we, as a system, agree are important.

Since we (prek-12) have over thirteen years time to position students for success in a world we cannot yet see, we must be honest about some of the assumptions we are making along the way.  Too easily, we assume that:

  • Seat time is paramount.
  • Learning is a linear process that mimics the pace of standards introduced at each grade.
  • Smart is performing well on assessments.
  • Brilliance must be communicated and demonstrated through English speaking and writing.
  • Students deserve about the same amount of support.
  • College is accessible to everyone.

Many of these assumptions are weaker than the US economy during the shut-down.

I believe we can proactively challenge them by implementing a competency based educational system, paired with highly targeted systems of support.  A bold move like this will double-down on our belief that all students CAN learn.  A bold move like this will force us to think of students as individuals, on unique paths towards meaningful graduation.  A shift like this will relieve educator shame associated with not having every student at the same place by May of every academic year.  A move like this will add healthy pressure to educator teams to innovate.  Additionally, it will give educators freedom to try on new approaches with students.  As a correlation to the medical profession, it will mean having educators shift self perceptions, from being general practitioners to specialists trained to address unique symptoms of patients (students).

An approach to competency-based education is one in which students advance, based on mastery of content, rather than time on a topic/ in a grade.  This approach acknowledges that students are at different places in their understanding, yet gives them the agency to make decisions about their learning experience.  Support for students in this model is individualized, because it must be, accounting for unique learning needs.  

The National Center for Urban School Transformation (NCUST) identifies “focusing on understanding and mastery” as one of the key practices that improve student achievement for all students. Following robust research and experience in high performing schools, NCUST defined and delineated what a focus on mastery looks like. It is NOT “covering a set of concepts, skills, or pages during a period, day, or unit.” Instead, it is “focusing on getting students to understand specific content or skills.” CompetencyWorks estimates 6-8 percent of school districts in the United States are currently implementing competency-based education at some level. This shift is, and must, come. Now is a perfect time for us to make great strides in this direction.

As a nation, we’ve been consciously and subconsciously wedded to a factory model of education. We send students through lessons, units and grades as widgets on a factory belt. To break away from this, we will have to get increasingly comfortable with having students at different places and paces. But shifting autonomy to students holds promise for increased relevance and motivation for learning. If we are able to adequately support students along the way, students will make it through “learning pits” and have real reason to celebrate their success (Zaretta Hammond).  Beyond that, we will have complete assurance that our graduates are ready to take on some of the world’s most vexing challenges.

The Power of Positive Practice

The Power of Positive Practice

“How about you hop out of the truck and let me pull it in?”

With those fourteen words, I went from King of the Campground to Billy Boy Scout.  To be fair, backing in a fully-loaded 18 foot travel trailer, right up to an electrical stand, is an earned skill.  It requires turning the steering wheel opposite of the direction you want to go, then following the back wheels of the rig.  It requires using all your mirrors and employing the spacial sense of a seasoned trucker.  It requires engaging all these skills while going in reverse…while the onlookers judge your skills.

On that day, in that campground, I tapped out.  I cried “Uncle!” 

And I let a full blown stranger do the job for me.

You can ask my wife; It took a full thirty minutes for me to get over it. After superfluously thanking my fellow camper, I engaged in some good old fashioned negative self-talk.  I belittled myself. I promised to ‘nail it’ the next time. Then finally I employed the deep breathing techniques that I had learned this year in counseling. After all, I was camping to get some relaxation and stress relief; This wasn’t supposed to be a stress inducing activity.

Later that evening, while toasting marshmallows to a golden brown tint, I had a thought:

How many of our students experience this level of frustration and perceived failure in our classrooms?  Do they lean on others to complete tasks for them when it gets too difficult? Do we, their educators too easily hop into the driver’s seat and accomplish their challenge for them?

Those questions are important to ponder.

But this question might be the most salient:

Do our students get enough low pressure, positive practice with the skills we are asking them to perform?

I believe that backing our camper into tight spaces, with everyone watching, is a skill that I will master.  But I don’t think I’ve had enough opportunities to practice in safe spaces. Each time we pull up to the campground, it feels like the Superbowl.  My kids can’t wait to get out of the vehicle to ride their bikes. My wife encourages me, and then braces for the fiasco. And my negative self talk emerges from the shadows of my brain. 

All of that is about to change.  In the next month, I intend to create some space for positive practice.  I’m going to hitch the trailer to my truck, drive to the largest parking lot in my neighborhood, and work on backing into tight spaces.  I know that I will knock over some cones. I am quite sure I will spend a good chunk of time there. But I also know that I will be pumping my fists and celebrating some expert trailer navigation.

As you think about leading teaching and learning in your context, how will you create safe spaces for students to apply high level thinking and intellectually demanding skills.

To experience true success, we all need safe space for positive practice.

What’s Good?

What’s Good?

“What’s good?”

On the streets of my ‘hood, and in the vernacular or teenage youth that I regularly interact with, this is a common greeting.

“What’s good bro?”

A bit like “What’s up?,” it accomplishes the more-proper “Hello, how are you doing?”  But it does more.  “What’s good?” elicits a positive response.  Both implicitly and explicitly, it begs the question: “What are you thankful for?  What are you celebrating?  Where is there light in your life?”

Paying attention to the good in our lives, both at the macro and micro levels, is the door to joy and contentment in our lives.

The transformative impact of gratitude practices are hardly believable, and yet indisputable.

One of my closest friends, who happens to be an accomplished professor and researcher, has added to this emerging body of work.  In his publication, “Cultivating a Grateful Disposition, Increasing Moral Behavior and Personal Well-being,” Joseph Bankard reasons that “Because life is a gift from God…we should strive to live in a consistent state of gratitude…But it requires intentionality and hard work…[but]…in the end this effort equips us to live grateful, happy and moral lives.”

My wife too, has pointed me towards this transformative practice. In response to the reading “One Thousand Gifts” by Anne Voskamp, she started naming instances of “eucharisto.” On days that were once broadly characterized by “good”  “so-so” or “bad” she started specifically listing the bright spots of her days.  Some days they were just fleeting moments. Other days they were more lasting events.  But every day, she named and scribed a handful.  In her words, “To be honest, seeking out three items was sometimes all I could manage. Often, just my hot cup of coffee and a quiet house were two of my three. What I do know is that my perspective on life altered. I began to see the world differently.”  Today, she continues to list moments she is thankful for; the list is now exceeds 13,000. Practicing gratitude changed everything for her.  As an eyewitness to this daily transformation, I am a believer.

With this kind of promise and buoying power, might this also be a near-essential practice for the 21st century educational leader?  After all, there are plenty of challenges, high demands, and disappointments that can drag us down, and burn us out of the profession.

Last year I took on a daily practice of gratitude in the school context.  I started by adding “gratitude action” to the 7:10-7:20am slot of my Outlook calendar.  If the practice is important, then it deserves at least ten minutes of my day, right?  In that calendar slot, I would write heartfelt thank-you cards to staff.  I would post a celebration on the school social media page.  I would walk over to a classroom and affirm a teacher. Or I would list a small accomplishment in the back of my Full Focus Planner. I still don’t know how to measure the change it made.  But it made a difference in my leadership.

I assert that committing to a daily practice of gratitude is an essential leadership skill.  It will at least give us a better shot at a long career.  At best, it will help us lead from a positive place that has lasting impact on the adults and children for whom we work for.

I write this as a personal “call to action” for myself.  Three months into the school year, I am too often giving my attention to what is challenging and troubling.  I am letting hard things color my countenance and impact my perspective.  I want to lead from a different place.  And because I know the door that leads to contentment and joy, I am re-committing to a practice of gratitude.

Instead of asking myself “What’s required?” or “What needs my attention today?”  I am going to take a cue from my teenage brothers and sisters, asking…

“What’s good?”

Somos Immigrantes

Somos Immigrantes

“Somos Immigrantes.”

Norma said it in jest.  But it wasn’t far from the truth. Less than five minutes earlier, the five of us abandoned our chartered bus and decided to walk north three miles into the highlands of Guatemala.  Our bus was originally headed to Huehuetenango, but was in a full stop. Up ahead, there had been a fatal accident that had plugged all traffic. Fortuitously, I made a few friends in the Guatemala City bus station, at 3:00 am, and decided to trust their judgement on this unexpected challenge.

Walking past idling semi-trucks, frustrated drivers, and a violently smashed automobile, we made it through the log-jam. . Then we jumped onto a “camioneta” (local bus). Besides the fact that we had to leave our “maletas” (bags) behind on the bus, our decision turned out to be a good one. We beat the chartered bus. We made it in enough time to check into a low end hotel. And we were able to visit a famous “mirador” (viewpoint) over Huehuetenango.

Walking a Mile (Or Three!) in Their Shoes

Gaining a deeper understanding of the life, culture and conditions of my students has been a primary reason for traveling this far into Guatemala (Read that post).  In conversations with ‘newcomer’ students and families, it turns out that most of them come from the region of Huehuetenango. Getting to this relatively remote place hasn’t been easy or without risk. But it has been extremely meaningful and insightful.

To be clear, there is nothing I can do to fully connect, empathize, or fully know the experience of an indigenous, mother or father from the highlands of Huehuetenango.  I can’t begin to put my mind around the desperation and strength that goes into making a decision to walk away from your country of origin; To leave behind extended family and ancestral burial grounds and towards an American border in hopes finding a better life with possibility and safety.

But I did get a hint of that feeling.  Walking three miles down the road, without a clear plan of how to reach my desired destination, I felt vulnerable and scared.  With a fleece sweatshirt wrapped around my head for sun protection and books in my hands (we were not able to take our bags), I felt under-prepared.  Having gotten up at 2:00am for the first leg of the journey, I felt worn down. Walking past tiny homes, pieced together with corrugated metal, mud bricks and concrete, I imagined my students Antonio or Maira, playing outside. 

“Somos Immigrantes”

These are the ways we can begin to make a difference for our students.  After all, depending on the time and place, we are all immigrants in need of some friendship, assistance, and teaching.

When I think about our students and families finding success in our context, I will think about the friends I made on the journey to Hueheutenango.  They took me under their wing in a stressful and challenging situation. They let me stay with them in their hotel and shared the best of HueHuetenago.  I will also think about Abuelita Cristina (homestay mother) in Antigua. Over small bowls of black beans, white bread, and Nescafe coffee she has come to know me well.  She offers keen advice and laughs at my jokes. I will also think about my Spanish teacher Miguel. While we have become friends, he pushes me hard towards my goal of learning spanish. By the time I leave, we will have shared 45 cups of coffee and conjugated 245 verbs.

“Somos Immigrantes!”

In the News

The BBC just published an interactive story, “US- Mexico border: Step into the shoes of a migrant” that connects readers to the possible outcomes of asylum families, journeying towards the American “frontera.” It is well worth the read.

F(l)ailing in Mexico City

F(l)ailing in Mexico City

So…I received a failing grade for day 1 of the Guatemala experience. In fact, I didn’t even make it there.

After successfully navigating a border crossing into Tijuana and onto my first flight, things were looking good. I even made huge progress on my required reading “Silence on the Mountain,” by Daniel Wilkinson. We arrived in Mexico City as scheduled, and I even located my next gate ahead of time. Making the assumption that I could approach the gate for the following flight 30 minutes in advance, I located, purchased, and enjoyed a delectable bowl of tortilla soup. It was creamy, just the right temperature, and even garnished with charred chiles. After paying the bill, I headed across the hallway to my gate.

“Lo siento, senor, su vuelo ya lo dejo, perdio su vuelo.”

I missed my flight? What? But the plane wouldn’t leave for another 25- 30 minutes! I made some sense of the explanation, learning that all passengers for this flight showed up three hours early and had already been bused to the tarmack. What now?

The answers to “What now?” were not good. In fact, they brought a grown man to tears in public. No thanks to AeroMexico’s TERRIBLE flight policies, here were the answers:

  • Spend over an hour locating your baggage that was left behind.
  • Pay $200 as a penalty for missing your flight.
  • Have your return flights from Guatemala voided.
  • Be offered, then turn down a $600 flight into Guatemala the next afternoon- which cost slightly more than the first class tickets hunted for and purchased for the entire trip, months ago.
  • Travel back and forth between terminals, on a sky train, trying to book a flight out by nightfall.
  • Have your incredible wife on the phone most of her afternoon, working to book flights, dispute charges.
  • Miss the first day of Spanish 4 Educators programming in Guatemala.
  • Give up. Pay penalties. Book a next day flight for $318 with another carrier.
  • Find a hotel. Get a shuttle. Find a bed by 11:00 PM.

Fresh Perspective

Now that I have gotten a good night’s rest, a lukewarm shower, and a little bit of drip coffee, I have a new perspective. If I were on the Amazing Race, I would be out. If I were centrally focused on seeing Latin America “on a shoe string,” I would have to abandon the cause. If I were graded on my ability to navigate a stressful situation in Spanish, I would not have gotten a passing grade.

When I remember why I really left home for Guatemala, I may be getting exactly what I was after. Literally in a single moment, at gate 75A in the Mexico City airport, I experienced pieces of the reality many of my students face every single day.

  • I lost privilege. I went from “first class passenger” to “man without a seat or a plan.”
  • I experienced disorientation in a new environment.
  • I was forced to use my budding language skill in emotionally heightened conversations.
  • The kindness of people who helped me along with way, had an augmented impact on my spirit.
  • Despite my best efforts, I felt defeated.

That said, I want to remind myself of a few things: 1) I am safe. A kind Columbian man highly discouraged my idea of taking the last leg of the journey by bus into Guatemala. Avoid cartels at all cost. 2) When we can solve our problems with money, our challenges are not as serious as they feel in the moment. This was not disease, or prison, or tragedy. Hard, yes. Tragic, no. 3) I have an incredible wife. 4) It’s the journey, not the destination. With some distance, and a safe landing in Guatemala later today, I am going to appreciate this recent episode even more. In the words of my team leader, “These things happen sometimes in the exciting world of international travel.”

I just hope to get a passing grade today!