Each year for the past several years, our school has declared a theme. The year of story. The year of design. The year of celebration and innovation. The year of collaboration. I have decided to have my own personal theme this year: the year of self-discipline.
I want to be healthier. This includes goals I keep putting off such as going to bed earlier, exercising more consistently in the morning, eating more natural foods, drinking less coke. I need to practice greater self-discipline in this area.
I want to make better use of my time at home. This includes spending more time with the people I love, making a greater impact in the lives of those around me, watching less tv, playing less Oregon Trail, planning more dates with my wife, reading more books to my kids.
Identifying obstacles is a good place to start. Email is one of my biggest, time-consuming obstacles. It can also be an emotional de-railer if you check it before going to bed. My goal is to have an empty gmail inbox at the end of every day. Not an easy feat.
The topic of how to manage one’s email effectively has been covered by more people in better ways than I could begin, so in this post I’ve compiled the best resources I have found. I have tried a few of these and they have helped, but I’m still not satisfied with my current level of effectiveness…
What would it look like if we applied the concept of customer service to the classroom? The term is more frequently associated with business and sales rather than education. For independent schools, customer experience must be a wildly important goal, though the word ‘customer’ falls short of describing a school’s relationship with students and parents. Partnership is closer.
Teachers and their direct communication with students and parents are the front lines of customer experience in a school. There are many other levers that teachers have control over that directly impact customer experience. We will focus on one for now: communication. There are a few non-negotiable ‘Do’s’ that teachers must commit to and administrators must support/inspect to guarantee a positive customer experience.
1. Update the Grade Book – Open 24/7 online to students and parents, this is the first place parents go for information about their child’s progress in your class. The teacher committed to exceptional customer experience will not only update the grade book frequently and consistently, but they will pay close attention to the labels and descriptions they write in the grade book so that the wording precisely matches the labels and descriptions they write on the assignment, rubrics, and LMS posts. The keys are timely, descriptive, and accurate.
2. Post Classwork and Homework Accurately to Blog – We use Schoology as the platform for teachers to communicate each day’s assignments. There are many platforms, but the important thing is for a student or parent to be able to quickly and easily access what happened during class each day (in case of absence). Teachers need some flexibility in case a lesson takes longer than anticipated or students take a particular interest in an unexpected area, yet students and parents need accuracy and timeliness. We ask our teachers to update their pages each Sunday night by 6:00 p.m. for the upcoming week. Teachers know to update their page the same day that they alter the plans.
For the average teacher, updating one’s page can be viewed as a tedious chore, but the teacher committed to exceptional customer experience realizes this is one of the first and best chances to communicate the quality of their practice. Compare two examples…
Example 1 Classwork: Ch 5 – The Columbian Exchange Homework: Work on project
Example 2 Classwork: Essential Question – How do the ideas, goods, and technology traded on the Columbian Exchange compare/contrast to international trade today?
Example 1 communicates ambiguity, dependence on a textbook, and lack of thoughtful planning. Example 2 is clear, specific and leads to learning even if read by someone on the other side of the planet. Which class would lead to a better customer experience for a student and parent?
3. Notify Customer When Grades Drop Below 73 – Although customers have 24/7 access to their grades, they still expect the teacher to communicate early warning flags. Teachers expect middle school students to take ownership and responsibility for their grades. Parents expect teachers to inform them every time a homework assignment is not turned in. Strike a happy balance by making a quick call or email approximately whenever a student’s overall average dips below 74. Every 3 weeks, we check student progress in all grades and notify parents along with recommendations for how a student can improve their performance. Usually, this involves attending tutorials, making up missing assignments, changing habits, or scheduling a conference.
Communication is essential between stakeholders in a school. Teachers cannot control everything that happens in a classroom, but these are three things they can absolutely control and use to their advantage to accelerate student learning and create an exceptional customer experience.
A key challenge at Mount Vernon (and every school I have worked in) is how to challenge those students who score 100 on everything. Often, the teacher’s energy and focus goes to the “lower performing” students. The high achievers often do not receive the challenge they deserve because teachers think, “Oh, they’re fine. They’ve already got it. They get everything. They can help tutor the others.” This is a myth in need of busting. All students deserve and need to be challenge beyond their current ability, including and especially the ‘gifted’ students.
A key approach to solving challenges at Mount Vernon is Design Thinking. One important component of design thinking is learning to empathize with people who are or have experienced the challenge you are trying to solve first hand. In my attempt to gain empathy for the gifted, yet unchallenged students in our middle school as we seek to design better and more challenging programs, I have interviewed my sister-in-law, Dr. Arianna Shirk.
Dr. Shirk is family and she is extremely intelligent, motivated, creative, and high-achieving. Allow me to brag about her for a moment. She earned scholarships to high school in NC, Furman University for undergrad, and Wake Forest University for Medical School. At Furman, she was allowed to make up her own major as part of their Engaged Learning initiative and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Perspectives on Poverty and Health. She studied the interaction of eastern and western medicine for a year as a Luce Scholar in Taiwan. She scored a 1580 on SAT, twenty points shy of perfect. Currently, she is a Pediatric Emergency Medicine Fellow at University Alabama at Birmingham and plans to move to Tanzania to help build one of the first free standing children’s hospitals in Eastern Africa.
How old were you when you first became aware of your need to be challenged beyond the typical classroom?
I was pulled out for enrichment learning classes in 1st grade where I wrote a play, learned chess, and did science field trips.
What most challenged you in middle school?
They gave me creative challenges with room for creativity. A term paper on the Japanese Industrial Revolution. Special projects – We did an election notebook in 7th grade 1992. We had to volunteer for the party of our choice. We wrote a report on a candidate at every level (county, state, and national) of government and studied the election process. We created a piece of election propaganda. I was assigned to be the debate coach which included watching the debates and prepping a fellow student candidate for a mock election. And I was a spelling bee nerd – I spent a few too many hours study Webster’s dictionary and running words with my parents.
What bored you the most?
When I had to regurgitate the book. I disliked one of my freshman high school classes because we never covered anything in class that wasn’t in the book. I did my homework and was bored to tears in class because nothing was new in class – I could memorize but wanted to learn to see it in a new way I couldn’t figure out myself.
What advice do you have for gifted students who want to be challenged?
If you have an idea, ask your teacher if you can do it. I’m still doing it – working on adapting my fellowship next year and plan to prepare myself better to practice medicine and maneuver the healthcare system in Africa. If possible, choose writing topics that are more complex and require more research to write so you have the chance to learn more. Figure out what you love and figure out how to make it part of your education every step of the way.
What advice do you have for educators who seek to differentiate for gifted students?
Show interest in them as people. Treat them as more than just students. Know more about them than just their grades or their ability to memorize things. My teachers that became mentors made me feel confident and that I could do more than people expected middle schoolers to do.
Students rise to the challenge when they have ownership – when it engages passion or imagination. If they are doing something to check a box or get a grade it can limit their potential. I’m very good at checking boxes, but I had mentors along the way that made me create my own boxes.
Thank you Dr. Shirk!
For the readers, what strategies do you recommend for challenging the students who need a bit more?
Adopt this philosophy and you will live long in the land. Great leaders know the difference and how to achieve it.
One can apply this philosophy to any team, organization, group, family, etc. Today, let’s apply it to the discipline philosophy of a school. When the goal is simply to get kids to follow the rules in the handbook a specific culture is created. It is a culture of law. Teachers spend their time nagging students to stop chewing gum, tuck in their shirts, get in line, and hush up. The nature of the teacher/student relationship becomes authoritative and diametrically opposed to the alternative…
When the goal is to connect with kids, take a keen interest, love them and meet them where they are in life, a different type of culture is created. It is a culture of relationship. There are still high expectations and standards of behavior, but the difference can be found in how the kids respond to those leading them. Life as an educator is significantly more fun and fulfilling when we strive to build relationships rather than submission. We have a huge opportunity to influence lives when we build a culture of commitment. When we enforce a culture a compliance, we might be able to keep students in line for a brief period of time, but we lose our influence.
I’m feeling good about my new blog and recent posts. I want to take a minute to clarify a few housekeeping items…
1. I have started several blogs over the years, but most didn’t last longer than a few posts. So far, I feel like this new blog is a win. Thanks for those who have retweeted or given enthusiastic feedback. It keeps me going. Really.
2. I was intending, and even in the process of planning, a relaunch of this blog when Bo Adams (@boadams1) shared the idea of the 60-60-60 Challenge with me. From his own blog, here is the challenge…
“I will post 60 ideas for educational change in the form of “what if” questions, I will do so for 60 days straight, and I will constrain my posts to around 60 words each (and maybe an image, an embedded TED talk, etc.).”
3. I have already lost the challenge. Though I have blogged consecutively for 7 days now, I have far surpassed 60 words and not every post is about ideas for educational change. (Guess I should’ve read the challenge more carefully.)
4. I’m okay with that. I have renamed the hashtag attached to this 60 day experience (thanks @scitechyedu – Mary Cantwell!) simply #60Challenge. My goal is to blog consecutively for 60 days with a minimum of 60 characters and no constraints on my topics, format, or amount of media attached. (I’m already at 205 words in this post. yikes!)
Thanks for reading! Please continue to follow and to share.
Be the first one off the blocks “Swimmers take your mark. Bang!” Any swimmer will tell you that in a race, every detail matters. The start, the turn, the position of your body are all critical to keeping the edge you need to win a close one. Swimmers are fanatics. We shave our arms, legs, and heads just to shave one second of our fastest time. Your first and best chance to win a race is to be the first one off the blocks and into the water. It takes a lot of practice, planning, and preparation to be ready for this moment. It lasts less than one second. If you false start, you get disqualified. If you hesitate, you’ve lost. You must be ready to seize the earliest opportunity to win.
Your goggles will come off. Don’t panic After my embarrassing failure in the 100 IM, I learned how to dive in so that my goggles were less likely to come off upon entry. In subsequent races, I became adept at pulling the goggles down around my neck, ripping them up off my head, and even breathing with my mouth half obstructed. Despite vigilant preparation, unexpected moments still occur. You must be able to remain calm and adapt quickly.
At MU, Coach Clark had a bucket of goggles that were painted with opaque, black paint. We learned how to count our strokes and swim without sight. He had us practice on Sunday nights. With the lights out. I knew precisely how many strokes it took to get across 25 yards of water with my eyes closed. Eleven.
Finish strong As a coach, I hammered this into the hearts and minds of my swimmers. The end of the race is when we are most tired. I trained myself and others to push hardest at precisely this moment. Get there first. Put your head down and don’t even think about turning your head to take a breath. Leave it in the pool. Picture swimming beyond the wall 10 yards through the concrete. Coach Clark used to say, “Swim past the pain.”
Be coachable After winning county, I couldn’t fathom that I had more to learn about swimming. Coach Clark showed me I was wrong. As cliche as it sounds, I truly learned that hard work pays off. I adopted the belief that growth beyond what you can imagine is possible. You have to be open to what others can teach you from their wisdom and experience if you want to be the best. Seek wisdom. Seek mentors.
Be a Coach
The scales are balanced between my fulfillment as a swimmer vs. swim coach. I wouldn’t be good at one without the other. I learned as much in my role as coach as I did swimming. Sharing your unique knowledge and skills is a gift.Teach others. Celebrate when they surpass you.
Late bloomers should not be underestimated or counted out Sometimes they go the farthest.
Since the summer of 1983, swimming has been a huge part of my life. The pool was located beyond the woods at the end of our neighborhood cul-de-sac. My first official lessons were at Leafmore Creek Park.
Two summers later I joined the swim team as a wide-eyed newcomer. Most kids my age joined the swim several years earlier. I had some natural ability and a lot of fun at the pool, but I cried when the coach put me in the 100 IM (Individual Medley – one lap of each stroke) because I was not confident about swimming butterfly or the distance of four laps.
The coach and my parents gave me a pep talk and convinced me to get in the race. They saw potential in me that I did not yet see. I choked on my goggles and they had to pull me out midway through the first lap. It was embarrassing, but I didn’t quit.
In 1993, I was hired as an assistant coach. I joined Dynamo and committed to life as a ‘year round’ swimmer. In 1994, I was the fastest 15 & over in Dekalb County in 50 yard freestyle and 50 yard breaststroke at the championship meet. I was a late bloomer.
I continued swimming in college at Marymount University my freshman year. Coach Clark completely changed my stroke technique and I became much faster. I broke 3 individual school records and 4 relay records. After one year, I transferred to UGA and my career as a swimmer was over. My career as a swim coach was just beginning.
I coached the Leafmore Dolphins from 1993 to 1999. Our team was undefeated 5-0 in 1999, a feat that had not been accomplished at Leafmore in 30 years. The last time the Leafmore Dolphins were undefeated was in 1969. They were coached by another UGA graduate, Phil Houston, my Dad.
I returned to coach the Dolphins from 2006 to 2009. Once again, the team was undefeated 5-0. Leading the swim team at Leafmore was my favorite job.
Swimming led to many great opportunities including the chance to volunteer at the 1996 Olympics where I had full access to the pool deck and met some incredible athletes and people.
Why should teachers solicit feedback from their students at the end of the semester?
The answer is simple. Growth.
Our team and our school promote this practice in our five year strategic plan as well as the standards of professional excellence by which we coach and evaluate our teachers.
Seek feedback and measure attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs of students about their work and contribution within the classroom environment. -iPlan17
We also highly value the idea and posture of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset. (For more on this concept, see post #6 of the #60-60-60Challenge tomorrow.)
Here are some key thoughts for educators and teams to consider…
Students should be invited to reflect and share feedback about their learning in each class at the end of each semester.
Teachers participate in writing the survey questions.
Phrase questions to elicit specific, constructive feedback.
Discard destructive comments and personal attacks or matters of personal taste vs. good practice. (ex: Kids may not like the practice of a daily essential question, but if done properly, it is good practice and should be continued.)
Pay attention to patterns of consistent, recurring comments.
Pay attention to comments that describe specific behavior.
Filter every comment through the perspective that kids are honest, yet they are still kids.
What has caused you to grow the most in your field? What are your thoughts and experiences with end of course student surveys?
Last summer our leadership team read The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni and the quote below has stuck with me ever since. I will confess, I have not been as strongly committed to this ideal as I feel I should be.
“The team you belong to must come ahead of the team you lead: this is putting team results (e.g., organizational needs) ahead of individual agendas (e.g., the team or division you lead).” – Patrick Lencioni
I love the people I work with. I love my team and my teammates. I feel a close connection with the team I lead because that is where I spend most of my time and energy in a typical week. I want to see this continue. We have big plans ahead. Yet at the same time…
I would like to demonstrate and develop a greater commitment to the team of division heads and the leadership council to which I belong. I would like to break down silos. I want to be a unit rather than a collection of individuals. I would like to see the potential of a group of incredibly committed and high-performing people fully unleashed.
To quote Michael Jackson, I’m starting with the man in the mirror. Yes, I just said that.
Here are 3 ways I plan to move in the direction of being a better teammate…
* Be more disciplined and effective in managing my time – so I have more time to…
* Be selfless and willing to help others – and simply be available and engaging to…
* Foster relationships by taking a greater personal interest – Life in a school is very busy. Life at my school is extremely busy. Weeks go by and though I may meet with the team I lead daily, I often do not see other teammates until the next leadership council meeting. Even when I see them, I feel that I don’t have a clear sense of what they are struggling with/working on and how I could help them. We are each doing our own thing, even though we are each working towards a common mission. We can improve our alignment, communication, commitment, and thus our impact.
If you try to follow #eportfolios on twitter, you may be disappointed. When you search and view samples of ePortfolios on the internet, you will find several schools with templates and beginnings. You won’t find many quality ones in the grade levels proceeding college. At least I haven’t yet. Many of them appear more like resumes than an instrument that not only documents learning but accelerates it, too.
This summer, our team is designing an ePortfolio for students spanning Preschool through Grade 12. The team consists of representatives from Preschool, Lower School, Middle School, and Upper School working together to create one cohesive platform. It will look a little different at each level to meet the needs of the students. For example, Preschoolers will require greater teacher assistance to curate, reflect, and upload their demonstrations of learning while Upper School students will possess greater autonomy.
Regardless of age, what is the purpose of student ePortfolios? Why do they exist? Why should they exist?
As a Workspace…
1. Document Student Learning – At a national level (and elsewhere), when we hear about the state of education, we hear about test scores. There are so many better and alternative ways to measure student growth and performance. ePortfolios lend themselves to constructed learning by design. The status quo for assessing student learning is and has been selected response learning (ex: multiple choice questions, give me four choices and I will select one. this tends to require little critical or creative thinking). Schools must employ a comprehensive and balanced approach to assessments. Teachers must design more units and assessments that encourage and require students to construct a unique and original response.
2. Accelerate Student Learning – Students who actively engage in their learning not only retain more knowledge but develop higher order thinking skills. Are we only force feeding content and standards? When do students get to choose their own learning path and pursue unique interests? An ePortfolio must include student reflection. It must include feedback from peers, teachers, parents, and external experts. It is a way to engage the greater community and inspire others to deeper learning or new discoveries.
As a Showcase…
3. Serve as a Discussion Starter for Student Led Parent Conferences – Have you ever wondered why parent teacher conferences often exclude the most important party; the student? Sometimes, it is more appropriate for the adults to meet, but I think we miss an opportunity to not only include the student in the conference, but to ask them to lead it. As they lead, students should leverage their e-portfolio as the starting point to showcase their learning and even highlight their areas of struggle, too.
4. Serve as a Discussion Starter for College Acceptance/Interviews – What does the SAT measure? And why do we care? Why do we put so much weight and emphasis on a limited tool with a narrow frame. How do we measure creativity? Ethical decision making? As a Director of Admissions, I relied on a comprehensive approach that included standardized test scores, but we did not hang our hat on them at the exclusion of other gauges including the required items (transcripts, interviews, application questions, writing samples, recommendations) and the un-required touch points (every interaction was a chance to get to know an applicant, to ask questions, observe behavior, and communicate an expectation. many team members were included in the interactions.) It takes more time to be thorough and relational. It is simply easier to pin it all on a test taken on a Saturday morning. Kinda lazy yet convenient. And a money making machine, too. I’d like to see more authentic measures begin to take over.
What other purposes can you think of for a student ePortfolio? Also, what questions do you have? Please share.
Organizing and improving all of the goals, events, reflections, feedback, ideas, touch points, and priorities that occur in the life of a school from year to year is like drinking from a fire hose. I am constantly seeking out new ways to be more effective and efficient at managing and leading. This Spring I had a breakthrough.
In the summer of 2005, I took a week long course at Oglethorpe University through the College Board for certification to teach AP World History. The instructor was Larry Treadwell. I will never forget him. In one week, my approach to teaching was reshaped. It was a defining moment in my career as an educator.
Mr. Treadwell unchained me from the textbook and empowered me to rely primarily on primary sources. “A document a day makes the DQB okay.” He gave me permission to have ridiculously high standards for my students. I took an entire legal pad worth of notes. I retyped them the next week and shared them with my teammate Elliott Rountree (a master AP teacher, Academic Team coach, entrepreneur (ACE Quiz Bowl Camps), and Jeopardy contestant.
There were countless ideas and strategies that I experimented with and adopted that year (my first year as an AP teacher will make for a good future post – it was a year of tremendous professional and personal growth). And then there was one simple idea: George.
Mr. Treadwell suggested that we get an empty box and label it George. As we created new material and handed out copies (this was pre-Google Docs/paperless classrooms), we were to give a handout to George, too. Thus, at the end of the semester, we would have a copy of our entire work in order, in one place. Simple and genius.
I followed Mr. Treadwell’s instructions and was pleased at the end of the semester to have all of my work for the course in one mostly organized pile. I was then able to develop it, improve it, add to it, delete from it, etc.
This Spring, I adapted and welcomed George to the 21st century. He is now a Google Doc named Gandalf. He is not longer a student in my AP World History classroom who receives handouts. He is now a member of my leadership team who serves as a calendar, curator, and administrative assistant for the rest of our team. Gandalf solves problems.
Interested in having your own Gandalf? Here’s what you do…
1. Create a blank Google Doc and paste all key dates for 2013-2014
2. Go through your endless list of Google Docs (if you’re like me, you receive 2-3 new ones each day from creative team members)
3. Link every single Google Doc to a specific date on the calendar. (ie – Orientation, 1st Pep Rally, Faculty Meetings, etc.)
4. Share the document with your leadership team. Ask them to add their documents by linking them to specific dates.
5. Sit down and review/revise the document with your team to make sure all is included and accurate.
6. As new documents arrive, you must link them into Gandalf or delete them. No stray documents.
Presto! You have just organized your entire upcoming school year in a collaborative way.
* It is a living, organic document whose maintenance is never complete.