Sunday, June 29, 2014

True Grit: Is Duckworth a low down dirty snake or a hero in a white cowboy hat?

I was curled up at my favorite watering hole with a good beverage, looking forward to my new book (you know, just like every real, authentic, tough guy cowboy). The book: How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. “Tough” would an excellent last name for a cowboy, but this particular Paul Tough is a journalist. I was expecting a summary of programs across the country aimed at improving the outcomes for young ‘uns. What I got when I cracked open the book was much more. 

Paul Tough spent a couple years researching what he calls “social-emotional” factors that are associated with school success, and he was surprised to find that these factors seem to not only be important, it turns out that they are MORE important than factors like IQ that get a lot more attention in and outside of our school system. Tough makes the claim that our schools operate on what he calls the “cognitive hypothesis”: humans are born with a certain amount of intellectual potential, our environments influence how much of that potential we develop, and the job of the school is to help students use/develop this “cognitive potential” as much as possible. The cognitive hypothesis influences the ways we talk about students (“bright,” “A student,” “Math/science kid,” etc.) and even the structures of school (IQ/ability testing for gifted/talented programs and special education services, etc.) The cognitive hypothesis predicts that high intellectual potential will help students succeed, and schools need to be structured to help those students soar, and support students with “less” intellectual potential succeed as much as they can.

Tough spends the rest of the book carefully describing compelling research and case studies that point to the conclusion that the cognitive hypothesis might be dead wrong. Study after study and story after story pile on top on one another about how “non-cognitive” factors, like perseverance, “grit,” emotional intelligence, and curiosity may be more important in student success than “smarts.” Tough builds a compelling case, I think, that if one of our goals in schools is student success (in college, careers, and/or life), then there is ample evidence to support the claim that we better stop operating under the cognitive hypothesis and start paying attention to these social-emotional factors. 

One of the researchers Tough often cites in the book is Angela Duckworth, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, and a recent MacArthur “genius” grant recipient. Duckworth got interested in why some people persist and persevere in the face of obstacles and others give up, how important this trait is to our success, and whether this attribute of “grit” can be measured. My favorite research finding: Duckworth studied an incoming class at West Point military academy. Hombres who get admitted to West Point are already an impressive lot: the selection process is more stringent than any Ivy League school, and these are folks who have known much success in life. Duckworth’s team tested everything they could think of about these young ‘uns, including all sorts of intelligence and other “talent” measures, along with social-emotional factors like grit. When all the data came back, the only (only!) factor out of the hundreds of variables that actually predicted who would get through the first year of West Point and who wouldn’t was grit. 

I asked some folks from my professional posse in my school district to read How Children Succeed and they were as impressed by it as I was, and we got more and more interested in how Duckworth measured grit. A couple middle schools started to measure grit with students, and one even got involved in Duckworth’s research team to help them collect data. Everyone was riding smoothly and happily along the trail, when suddenly I saw a cowpoke I like to listen to lash out hard against Duckworth’s grit research. His beef is that Duckworth’s grit claim is darn similar to the same story he’s heard for years about the kids he works with (kids who live in tough family circumstances, well below the poverty line): all they need to do is get “better attitudes,” like grit, and then they can pull themselves up by their own (cowboy) boot straps. 

I was shocked: I hadn’t thought of Duckworth’s research like this, and I definitely wasn’t sure it was time to put up a “wanted dead or alive” poster with her face on it. I exchanged a few polite comments with some of the people in the anti-Duckworth posse, and one of the them told me to read the book Scarcity. That’s another good one, and it develops a point that Tough only walks by in How Children Succeed: if kids are in conditions of scarcity (high stress, low time, low resources), maybe these conditions get in the way of using any of the social-emotional capabilities, whether or not they are “high grit” or not. Like Tough, these authors carefully use and explain research findings and case studies to prove that conditions of scarcity limit our abilities to think and use our social-emotional resources. 

So, the question of the moment seems to be: is Duckworth a low down dirty snake or a hero in a white cowboy hat? Should schools jump on the grit train, or are we being hornswaggled by a bunch of low down dirty, social-class-blind intellectual types? I’m still puzzling through all of it. I think some of the “anti-Duckworth” backlash isn’t fair (like the accusation that’s she’s somehow a eugenicist), but raising grit up as the holy grail of student success is foolish and potentially damaging. 

My conclusion right now (but it might change tomorrow) is best represented by what a cowpoke in my posse said to me the other day. He works in an elementary school with students who go home to very tough circumstances, and his mind is always on the topic of how to help all the little knee-biters in his corral succeed. He said 
"This reminded me of Herb Kohl's Not-learning in his essay I won't learn from you. We need to have two eyes- one that understands the role of the individual and one that works collective to change the contexts of privilege and oppression". I think that’s a right good summary. Duckworth ain’t wrong, and neither are some of the criticisms of her, but neither of them are exclusively right. Just like always in teaching and learning, we got a bunch of different things to keep in mind, and for now, I think bot grit and scarcity will be at the top of my list.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

CLARITY in Professional Development

Often times professional development misses the mark. You know the drill, teachers crammed in rooms that are either too hot or arctic cold with sit and get presentations and little time for collaboration or creation.  This brings to mind the professor from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, "Any one? Any one? Any one know what this says?....Any one seen this before? Any one? Any one?" 

You would think that with these types of PD experiences that we (the teachers) would be more cognizant of not recreating this same kind of boredom for our students.  However, if we practice what is preached then it's know wonder sit and get lessons still live strong in many classrooms.

So what can we do to transform the professional development experience? What is missing? 

"I have always had this view of the modern education system; we pay attention to brain development, but the development of warmheartedness we take for granted." ~Dalai Lama

If the foundation for student growth is building relationships; then the same must hold true for teacher growth. The Dalai Lama brings CLARITY to what is missing in most professional development sessions:

Create Community
It seems most PD days begin and end with some sort of "all faculty" meeting   Have you ever looked around at your colleagues during this time? I have and this is what I've seen:  foot or finger tapping, grading papers, checking email, online activity, texting and the list goes on. Let's face it! Teachers usually work in silos with little opportunity to connect with other teachers.  The last thing we want to do is get in a room and not be able to talk!  Let us choose to stand, sit, walk about, mingle or participate in team building activities.  Notice I said "choose" as not all faculty want to "play games" and not all faculty want to sit.  Differentiate opening and closing activities with the intent of having a common theme/objective in mind. 
Light Fires
Community and collaboration is contagious. Professional development must ignite our senses!  It must touch both the head and the heart. Fanning the flames of learning allows the flames to wick out and join other fires to create the ultimate bonfire. Once the flame is seen by all, it can be felt by all!
Acknowledge Abilities
PD must embrace a passion for sharing and learning by show casing what each person can bring to the table. PD must also allow for teacher choice in order to differentiate for the learning needs of each educator.  By abandoning the one size fits all model, we then honor each educator's level of readiness.  EdCamps or Un-conference PD platforms are great ways to offer a variety of sessions.  These platforms serve a dual purpose: 1) you get to pop in and out of sessions that appeal most to you and 2) it places the "ball in your own court"...if there is not a session you like then you can lead your own session
Refine Practices
Regardless of teacher choice, all sessions must reflect, refine and/or reestablish best practices in order to better meet the needs of 21st century learners.  
Inspire Instruction
Through community, collaboration, teacher choice and reflection of practices teachers should leave PD days feeling inspired and excited to try new ideas in the classroom.
Transform Student Learning
These new ideas/practices should be implemented with the intent of creating an atmosphere that promotes learning forward for each student's level of readiness.  In order to create opportunities for learning forward, professional development must spiral the emphasis of relationships throughout all sessions.  Every session offered should be able to link content to building teacher student relationships.
Yield Results
The biggest complaint I hear from teachers is that they never have time to work with what they learn in PD sessions.  I think integrating Genius Hour into PD days would be a HUGE hit with teachers! Allowing time for collaboration and creation would ultimately yield positive results in student learning. 

If you are seeking a little more clarity from your professional development sessions, pass this along to your PD planning team for them to brainstorm new ways to embrace both the head and the heart.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

There’s Gold in These Here Chats

I am comfortably and happily non-discerning in the twitter chats that I will engage in.  If I am connected and looking to learn, I am equally likely to join a chat about administration, education in Georgia, and independent school (all of which are fitting to my current role and location) as I am to join a student led chat on history, a district led chat on PD, or a state/national chat, so long as I feel I have information to learn or share.  Thus, December 17th seemed like any other such opportunity as I logged in and saw a group of educators that I admire (@jcordery, @michlampien, @alcp, @barrrykid1, @bhuntermusic & @ jannetemelee) discussing blogging.

Why should teachers’ blog?

Blogging is an inherently reflective activity that forces the author to examine their actions and emotions as they relate to events or ideas.  As teachers we need to be engaged in and model reflective practice so as to best meet the needs of all of our students.  Blogging allows us to share our thoughts, our challenges, and our successes with a global audience.  It offers transparency in to our humanity and fallibility, and it enables the potential for meaningful connection both internally with the community we serve and externally in to a larger community to we which we can both offer and receive support.

Being late in December and in the heart of resolution season, the discussion stemmed on the admiration for the consistency of blogging from other members of our PLN and the desire to contribute more regularly. 

And in the midst of the admiration, and idea was formed.

And it resonated…


Within a few days we had a weebly, google doc of participants, hashtag, and growing anticipation that #blogamonth would provide the “edu-couragement” we all needed to blog and comment each month.    We quickly decided that we should also add a monthly suggested topic so as to further help each participant battle the inertia of not writing due to the myriad of other tasks that stood in the way of our creative and reflective output.  


There are currently 73 educators who participate in the monthly challenge to both post and comment on each other’s post.  This amazingly diverse PLN is made up of superintendents, principals, integration specialists, music teachers, rabbis, substitute teachers, librarians, college professors, and more.  The diversity of geography, role, and thought contributes to the amazing diversity of sharing. 

My own personal PD

For me there is no greater professional development than the PLN of connected educators I engage with on a daily basis via twitter and blogs.  That I am afforded the opportunity to engage in and learn with the incredible community of passionate educators and thought provocateurs of #blogamonth, and that I am “obligated” to contribute to each of their learning on a monthly basis through my own reflection and blogging is truly a rare gift (or maybe even gold nugget).

(Want to join in the Edu-couragement? Join the group for monthly topics and tons of support!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

How might WE learn?

Educators spend a significant amount of time reflecting on pedagogy to support an engaging student learning experience, and rightfully so.  How much time do school leaders spend planning and preparing to support 21st century professional learning?  How might we enhance the HOWs, WHATs, and WHYs for learning in this digitally connected age?

In the next month I’ll be sharing an interactive Digital Leadership Challenge designed to support HOW we learn.  The Digital Leadership Challenge article will be titled Driven to Collaborate.  It will feature creative mini-challenges submitted by ten connected educators across the country.  The article and accompanying mini-challenges is being published by the Minnesota Elementary Principal Association (#MESPAmn) and shared electronically via multiple sources including this blog.

We’ll be using a tiered system to ensure that regardless of where you are at on your Digital Leadership journey there will be accessible entry-points to learn and grow.  Weve also created a cool point-system with electronic badges that will be awarded based on the challenges you complete.  Im really excited by the inspiring variety of learning opportunities that will be outlined in the article.  Please encourage your colleagues to dial in to this unique, 21st century PD opportunity.

Watch for our the article the 1st week in May.  Special thanks to the amazing educators that collaborated on the Digital Leadership Challenge.

Mini-Challenge Submissions:

Curt Rees, Elementary Principal, WI

@CurtRees on Twitter

Patrick Glynn, Elementary Principal, MN

@GallyGopher on Twitter

Jessica Johnson, Elementary Principal, WI

@PrincipalJ on Twitter

Tony Sinanis, Elementary Lead Learner, NY

Joe Sanfelippo, District Superintendent, WI

@TonySinanis & @Joesanfelippofc on Twitter 

Dwight Carter, HS Principal, OH

@Dwight_Carter on Twitter

Dave Zukor, Integration Specialist, MN

@DZukor on Twitter

Rafranz Davis, Instructional Technology Specialist, TX

@RafranzDavis on Twitter

Daisy Dyer Duerr, PreK – 12 Principal, AR

@DaisyDyerDuerr on Twitter
Terri Eichholz, Teacher of K – 5 Gifted Students, TX

@TerriEichholz on Twitter

Eric Sheninger, High School Principal, NJ



Tuesday, March 4, 2014

PD & SIPs: Feel Like You're Herding Cats? That's OK!

If you're an educational leader, you've no doubt been involved in developing school improvement plans, following those frameworks that suggest our work can roll easily if we just follow the cyclical arrows: collect the data, identify the implementation needs, train the staff, take action, reflect, revise, and so on...

Continuous improvement plans have good intentions.  Making significant changes in teaching and learning means that educators need to speak a common language, have common expectations, and develop expertise in common effective strategies and instructional moves. It makes sense that we would follow an organized plan with timelines and outcomes, including opportunities for professional growth.  Yet, when embedding professional development activities into school improvement planning, the reality sometimes looks more like this:

Feel like you're herding cats?  Fantastic!  When planning for school improvement and professional learning, educator needs, background experiences, and learning styles vary-- just like those of our students.  If we keep our targets in mind, however, we can design plans that allow us to differentiate professional learning opportunities while still addressing the goals of school improvement.

So How do We Round Them Up? 

1.  Identify and communicate the expected targets.  
I worked with a school district in my county to plan professional learning for their K-5 staff.  The SIP team had identified Tier 1 reading instruction as an area where they needed to ensure that teachers were using evidence-based practices, and that students were receiving quality reading experiences in each and every classroom.  At our first session with staff, we shared a framework of balanced reading instruction, and provided explicit descriptions of exemplary practice.  Teachers talked in small groups about which areas they felt most confident, as well as those about which they wanted to learn more. 

2.  Ask teachers to self-assess. 
Professionals are often more willing to participate when they've had the opportunity to reflect and address their learning needs. We then used a survey asking teachers to identify their level of implementation for each component of the framework, using the following levels: 
  • Not Practiced: I do not use this practice and/or I have very little knowledge of this practice.
  • Beginning: I am learning about this practice and am just starting to try some things, but I still feel I have a lot to learn.
  • Progressing: I have been working on this for awhile, and am beginning to feel comfortable in my understanding and practice. I would like to further hone my skills and knowledge.
  • Implementing: I have a deeper understanding of this practice and it has become a part of my instructional routine.  I still have some “fine-tuning” to do.
  • Innovating: This practice has become a regular part of my teaching repertoire, and I am comfortable in adjusting it based on my student needs.  I have a deep enough understanding and expertise level that I could advise others.  

The survey also included a place to prioritize topics for further study, as well as space for open-ended responses.

3.  Provide multiple opportunities for professional growth based on teacher-identified needs. 

One of the most powerful models this district found to support teachers was the creation of small grade-level teams to observe a colleague's classroom, focusing on the instructional strategy or routine they wanted to study based on the survey. Using a lab classroom protocol, teachers identified a focus, saw it in action, and debriefed with colleagues afterwards. In addition to the observation, teacher teams studied relevant articles and books on their focus, and set individual professional goals to try the strategies they were learning. Teachers began to shape their own professional learning in this fashion, and continued collaborating and sharing resources through email, Google-docs, and LiveBinder.
4. Remember that it won't happen in a one-day in-service. Nor a two-day. Not even a three-day.

True growth and change occurs over time, so plan the year (and beyond!) in a way that allows teachers to continue to meet, share practices, resources, share student progress, and self-monitor.

Educators may not be cats, but they aren't cattle, either. They need relevance, engagement, ownership, and an opportunity to interact with colleagues within the context of their work.
We don't want our professional development to look like this: 

I'd rather herd cats.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Quick Draws Only Work in the Wild West

The #PDposse welcomes back guest blogger, Jon Harper. Jon is the Vice-Principal at Choptank Elementary School in Maryland.  You can follow Jon on Twitter; @JonHarper70BD
Remember the old westerns where there was always a duel at high noon? The gunslinger that drew their weapon the fastest always won. Yet, a quick Google search indicates there is some debate as to whether or not the person that drew their weapon the fastest always won the showdown.

Unfortunately, I believe that some folks working in education today feel that the faster they draw “their weapon”, the more likely it is they will win the confrontation. I find the opposite to be the case when working with students, parents and fellow educators. In my experience I have found that a calm and steady hand and head is what always works best.

A student calls out or displays a poor behavior choice in class. The experienced teacher doesn’t fire right back or make a quick snap decision. They assess the situation carefully because they want to be as accurate as possible in how they choose to handle it. Students in their classes know that their teacher is not going to fire back and they do not feel the need to do the same. The showdown never takes place!

A parent comes into school wanting to speak to an administrator regarding some injustice that they feel has been done to their child. They are angry and they are ready to fire at a moment’s notice. But the experienced leader knows that parents need to have their concerns heard. They need to feel listened to. And they are. Therefore, the parent never even needs to reach down into their holster. The showdown never takes place!

An angry staff member comes to you because they simply believe that too much is being expected of them and that there is not enough time in the day to get it all done. They assume that you won’t agree with them and that you believe that they have more than enough time in the day to fulfill their responsibilities. They are looking to pick a fight and they have a posse to back them up. You sit next to them and you listen and you tell them that you agree with them. You tell them that teaching is much more difficult today than it was when you were teaching. You also help them find ways that they can lighten their load. The teacher is relieved and they give the signal to call of their posse that is waiting in the hallway. The showdown never takes place!

In education it is very easy to pick fights and too often we want to react quickly. Next time you think you might be headed for a showdown just relax, take a deep breath, and remember that quick draws only work in Old Westerns.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I don't need no stinkin' help!

Rigidity is a terrible thing to grow into as a human being and yet as we become set in our ways, the stiffness sets in.

None of us started off teaching with closed minds.

I'm sure we can all remember a time when the future seemed limitless and we were going to change the world and then something happened.

Amazingly some of us still feel that way, while others have fallen down the rabbit hole unable to to climb out. Suddenly, the comfort of knowing what to do have superseded the need to try new things and grow, it has stunted creativity.

As a community, we are only as strong as our most resistant member and we all need help regardless of whether or not we want to own it or get it.

Students see our struggles and it is our job to be the change we want to see happening. Negativity in a school is like a cancer that festers into unthinkable darkness.

Professional learning and connecting is a way to draw us out the darkness and re-awaken the excitement we once felt about being educators. We all have that within us no matter how challenging the system has become.

Challenge for today: No matter how "bad" things get, find the one positive moment that makes your day AND tell the person who has done it.

How can you help a colleague out of the darkness? or Who has offered you a lifeline and how has it helped? Please share.