Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Living the Mission

I facilitated a panel discussion Monday afternoon entitled "Safety and Learning: Optimal School Environments for LGBT Students" in conjunction with the series of events related to The Laramie Project and Judy Shepard's visit to campus. Although there were several other events going on at the same time, we had a good turnout and great discussion. Despite the world's obsession with numbers and stats, we really learn from stories, and the five panelists shared some meaningful ones.

One student told the poignant story of how her mother struggled with her daughter's sexual orientation so much that it seemed to override everything else about the bright, social, athletic. 3.5 GPA student. It got so tough at home that she moved to a teacher's house for a month or so. Another student told about how she knew coming out didn't feel like an option in her suburban school and that only at college has she been able to hit her stride as a young woman. A third student told of how frustrated she's been when her high school teachers look at her while trying to decide just how (or whether) to respond to gay slurs from other students.

That got me wondering whether the teacher is going to address those comments in 3rd hour because there's an out LGBT student in the room, but let them go in 4th hour because he assumes all those kids are straight. I wonder if the same teacher makes eye contact with the students of color in the room while deciding just how (or whether) to address racial slurs.

Perhaps the most memorable story of the day came from Dr. Tom Narak, the excellent superintendent of schools in West Des Moines. He talked about the power of leadership at the classroom, building, and district levels. A few years ago, when students at Valley High School were preparing to present The Laramie Project,   some in the community were pretty riled up. A couple hundred folks turned out at board meetings. And you know what? They worked through it, because that's what we do. A real life lesson in engagement, civility, and the way the process works in a democracy.

This brings me back, for what feels like the gazillionth time, to a point I make in the last chapter of my book, which is that we have to summon the courage to live our mission statements. Those catchy statements look so good on our letterhead and the nice sign out front that the PTA paid for. But let's be honest: People who are paying attention can tell if they're real principles that guide our day to day actions or just catchy public relations slogans. Why bother with all the feel good prose that looks good on the website if we're only courageous enough to make it real when we're dealing with the easy stuff. Real leaders have the authenticity and integrity to make sure they're not just catchy slogans.

Speaking of real leaders, that reminds me...for those who read the Connected to Reality Sweepstakes a while back, neither Newt Gingrich or Bob VanderPlaats came to the forum, so I still have their copies of the book.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Get Out of the Wake

I had the good fortune to hear the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling speak on campus last night. That I babysat for Sarah and her younger siblings back in the day is a nice bit of trivia, though it is entirely possible (perhaps quite likely) that I benefited more from the experience than she did. Sarah delivered a superbly sincere and uncomplicated message to the audience of current and future educators last night. Two thoughts stand out.

Like any good teacher, she knows that we learn through stories.  She recounted a nice tale of how her grandfather had always wanted to teach his grandkids to water ski, especially since he had not been able to afford a boat when his own kids were at home. So, every summer, there was a good deal of time spent learning to ski behind grandpa's boat. Sarah was a decent skier, but a little on the cautious side, preferring to stay directly behind the boat despite her grandpa's cajoling to get out of the wake.

For quite a while, she resisted, preferring that familiar space where the rope is taught, the water familiar. Then one summer evening, her grandpa wore her down, telling her "this is the night." Alone on the lake, he got her out of the wake, along side the boat on water like glass. And it was great, just like he said it would be.

Sarah then connected all of that to risk taking and getting out from behind our boats as teachers. She was an adequate skier behind the boat, but had an entirely different experience once she got out from behind it. We ought to ask ourselves as teachers and leaders about the safe and comfortable boats we're following now. Are we willing to take a breath and get out of the wake, where its a little choppy, smells of exhaust, but is at least familiar and comfortable?

The second memorable story Sarah told was about teaching literary analysis through The Great Gatsby. She took a phone call from a mother of student was really struggling in her class. Sarah told mom to send the girl in for some extra help. The girl came. A couple of weeks later, mom called again, asking if Sarah could help her daughter some more. "Of course," she said, graciously inviting the girl for more help. A couple of weeks later, mom called again, frustrated that whatever Sarah was doing was not working. Mom wondered why Sarah just couldn't put three things on the board for her daughter to do to somehow understand literary analysis. Sarah explained that it just wasn't that simple, she couldn't do that, and that she didn't really know why it was not working for her daughter. Click, mom no longer on the line.

She'd read Gatsby a dozen or more times and had used it to teach literary analysis at least that many, but here's the killer: She knew she needed to push herself to connect with what it felt like to be a struggling learner. She tuned in to her own blind spot. So, at the first opportunity, she locked herself in the library for some literary analysis of her own, armed with some Proust, a notebook for literary analysis, and a second notebook to record her own feelings, frustrations, and observations. I've not ready any Proust, but will take Sarah at her word that it's tough stuff.

During that week, the gifted English teacher slung herself out from behind the comfortable wake behind her literary analysis boat and reconnected with what it feels like to be that struggling learner. And once the tenacious teacher accomplished that, her struggling student had a new chance.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Calling All Slackers

This short piece by Robert Samuelson generated a lot of talk last week, at least around the places I hang out. My class of future principals will get into it on Monday. Samuelson notes some percentages about a couple of common suspects in the student learning investigation, namely teacher salaries and class size, noting that several years of political spin and rhetoric have failed to produce stunning changes. Those two ideas are worth continued discussion.

The bigger problem with his argument, however, is that it puts too much blame on the students and not enough responsibility on the rest of us. Yes, student motivation makes a big difference, but come on. We might nostalgically yearn for the "good old days" when we think students worked harder than they do now. Without question, there were some students in the 19-whenevers who were more motivated than some are now, but there were some loads, too.

Let's not confuse compliance with motivation.

Many of the students Samuelson sees as unmotivated are simply less likely to slog their way through whatever is put in front of them educationally, questioning nothing. Completing mindless word searches, reading the chapter to robotically answer the section review questions, and completing the countries/capitals matching worksheet is more of an exercise in mindless compliance than demonstration of motivation to learn, isn't it?

Student motivation is obviously important, but Samuelson's argument lets the rest of us off the hook too easily. Every generation has lamented the problems with "these kids today." Students have to work. It's not all going to be easy. It won't all be fun, nor will it all be solved by a laptop. Families have to help, and so on. But hiding behind the shoulder shrug of an educator saying, "I put it out there, it's up to them to get it" won't work, and it shouldn't. It never really did in a meaningful way.

Kids will frustrate us, cut corners, and roll their eyes. Educators know that and do their damnedest to respond, tweak, correct, cajole, motivate, awaken, and inspire. We won't turn every slacker into a Rhodes Scholar. But let's not throw the kids under the bus and dismiss them as unmotivated simply because they're sophisticated enough to know when they're getting garbage disguised as a crossword and it doesn't light their fire.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Peace in Italian

A few years ago a friend returned from vacation in Europe with a gift for me. It was a rainbow colored flag from Italy with the word "Pace" written across it. I learned that the flags had first appeared in the early 60s and had long been a symbol of the no nukes movement and that "pace" is the Italian word for "peace." Cool. When my friend was there, the flags were all the rage as a way to express concern over the impending war in Iraq.

I didn't know it at the time, but mine is actually different from the rainbow flag commonly used to show support for LGBT people. The timing was interesting, as I was in the midst of working on my dissertation which examined the school experiences of some gay and lesbian high school students, that later became the book I've offered as a free gift to Newt Gingrich (see my post Connected to Reality Sweepstakes). I'm also willing to provide one to Bob Vander Plaats, as I'm sure the topic would be of interest to him as a former high school principal. The postage is on me, guys.

I liked the gift and the messages behind both flags. And hey, that my name means peace in Italian is icing.

For some, the presentation of The Laramie Project and other important events on campus have generated a stir. The series of events has even caught the attention of an infamous gaggle of protesters who masquerade as some kind of Christian church. The crew threatened to make Cedar Falls their next tour stop, so I stopped by the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center Monday where the protest was to take place. The protesters were nowhere to be found, but three hundred or so UNI students, faculty, staff, and community people were there, getting honks from cars, power signs, cheers, and high fives.

Those who showed up pitched a perfect game. No runs, no bigots, no errors. And I'll fly that flag.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

...Know how Much you Care

I've always liked the old saying about teaching that goes, "they won't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Trite as it may be, it's a good reminder that this is, despite what all of those who grossly oversimplify education say, a people and relationship business. While the results of the latest  Iowa Youth Survey are generally positive, there are a few things that should concern us.

For example, many would be disappointed but perhaps not surprised to see that in 6th grade, 53% of students strongly agree that their teachers care about them. By 11th grade, the percentage has fallen to 19%, although the overall percentage is still positive. If you haven't seen it, take a look.

I drop my ninth grade daughter off at school on my way to campus. Though we should probably be riding our bikes instead of driving, it represents a few minutes each day that I have her captive and can get her talking, mostly about school. She said something the other day that needs to be added as a corollary to the old adage above.

She was lamenting and rolling her eyes about the number of her teachers who seem to have virtually no technology skills and even less desire to acquire some. She said, "If they don't even know how to turn the computer on and don't want help, you know they're just out of it."

Game stopper. Deal breaker. Evaporation of credibility. Gone. Irrecoverable.

My daughter is not such a teckie that she expects to be wowed through endless dog and pony shows consisting of little more than edutainment. But she, and I suspect many of her peers have an internal measuring stick that she uses to assess her teachers and their level of credibility and with-it-ness. What's more, she, and I suspect many of her peers, silently but certainly keep track of which teachers are up for the continual learning this case, increasing their skills with technology, and at the same time vastly enhancing their credibility. I recall hearing things about the importance of modeling that which we desire to see in others....

There are multiple ways to interpret the word "care" in the adage. At first glance, I take it as concern for the wellbeing and success of students...wanting the best for them. And that makes sense. Anyone who can't or won't do that as a teacher needs to hit the door, sooner than later. But my daughter's comment also makes me think of an alternate definition of the word in this context--one that gets at teachers as professionals. In this sense, what we're talking about is caring enough to continually grow, develop, improve, and yes,  l e a r n.

Let's take note of the students' silent scoring of our level of caring--about them as people as well as the level of care we apply to ourselves and our own personal and professional development. Otherwise, what we know won't matter because we'll never get our foot in their door.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Prude or Prudent?

My excellent colleague, Tim Gilson, shared this article on twitter earlier today about the controversy that has boiled up at some schools over kids wearing bracelets and t-shirts in support of breast cancer research and those battling the disease. In some places, administrators have banned the shirts, while in others they've created no ruckus. 

This made for some interesting watercooler conversation for the Ed Leadership gang, to say the least. Wouild I be a prude to ban the shirts or would it be prudent?

Some took the position that tatas, boobies, rack, girls, guns, and all the rest are inappropriate terms that objectify the female body and even though some in the fight breast cancer movement have embraced the term, they're not cool for school. My wife has a pink t-shirt with these and a host of others.

Others said that this was really much ado about nothing, or at least much ado about nothing that the principal needed to do. The kids are supporting people they care about and the terms are common for just about everyone. And if their use brings attention to cancer research and support of those fighting it, rock on.

Then we moved the discussion to other things...t-shirts, bracelets, caps. What about a Hooter's t-shirt. One colleague said that since Hooter's is a "family restaurant," he would have a hard time banning the shirts. Then someone asked, "So a Hooter's shirt is ok because it is a restaurant but a boobies bracelet is not because its not a restaurant? Aren't both terms objectifying women?"

Then another chimed in, "Yes, Hooter's is objectifying women, but the bracelets are helping women by embracing the term and turning it around to create cancer awareness and support."

Then another brought up the peril of banning the bracelets, while allowing the restaurant shirts, while maybe allowing other stuff kids naked, big Johnson, and so on to eternity. How much time should policing things like t-shirts and bracelets get from a principal? That makes for an expensive clothing inspector. We talked about the Tinker case and students' free speech rights...

Several of us were at several different places on the whole thing. We did agree on one point:

This is a classic case of how a principal could easily find him/herself in a difficult situation all the way around. Say I ban the shirt. Some will accuse me of being unsupportive of students' heartfelt efforts to support those they care about. Say I allow the shirt. Some will accuse me of being complicit in the objectification of women and encouraging their bodies to be viewed as sex objects, especially if there are other slang references on kids' clothes. 

It's not hard to see how this seemingly minor thing could, like so many others, develop a life of its own. How many classroom observations might be missed while dealing with this? Will the whole thing damage the principal's credibility and ability to lead on other issues? Maybe, maybe not.

We want things to be clear cut, black and white, and easy to address. Sometimes they are. More often, it seems, they're a thousand shades of gray.