Thursday, April 19, 2012

It's Not a Competition, It's a Reading Challenge!

As I look around at the world all I see is competition and competition is a wonderful thing!  However, everything does not need to be a competition.  I think that sometimes in elementary schools we forget that a part of what we do is teach children how to compete.  How to win, how to lose, and how to deal with all that goes with both.  This is best done on a small scale in classrooms or the gym.  It is generally not an easy lesson to teach to a whole school at once.

At our school we have a reading challenge called, "The March Reading Madness Challenge." It's a wonderful event and I look forward to it each year.  The basic premise is that the children need to read 40 pages or 40 minutes per night for one month depending upon grade level.  At the end of the month, the principal does a wacky stunt if the school meets its goal.  Nine years ago when I began doing the challenges, we used to announce the classes and students that read the most at our culminating assembly and those classes would get an ice cream party (pre-nutritional guidelines) or a pizza party.

Over the years,

  • I've been duct taped to a wall three feet off the ground
  • I've been pulled to the ceiling of the gym with rock climbing equipment and read to the school
  • I've dyed my hair blonde and shaved my beard
  • I've been dunked in a dunk tank (cold day!)
  • I've been raised to the roof of the school in the fire truck bucket and spent 24 hours on the roof (29 degrees that night).
  • I've kissed a pig
  • I've been wrapped in a boa constrictor
  • I've demonstrated a big rolling tube that would be added to our field day (hard to describe, but the children loved it). 

Then, of course, there is this year.  Well just look below to see what I did this year.
If you prefer video, you can watch it here.

This is a wonderful time of year at the school.  The children always come up to me and tell me how much they have read and that they are going to meet their goal so that I will do the stunt.  Of course, the purpose of the event is to get children to read more.  Hopefully, after the month is over a few more children catch the reading bug and keep on reading.

Over the years, we have eliminated the individual and class rewards.  This was not met with support from all.  The reasoning was because the main goal of the reading challenge was for the school to work together as one community of readers to reach a goal and cause me to keep my promise to them.  However, at our assemblies early on it was clear that the triumph of the larger challenge was lessened because the majority of the school did not get the party.  We sat down and had a great deal of conversation about the goals of the challenge and among those goals was not competition.  I think that it is important to keep the goals in mind when deciding whether competition should be an ingredient in a lesson or challenge.

That was about five years ago and our students continue to read just as much as they ever did.  Competition does have its place; however, when working with young children it is wise to decide where and when.  This may be a somewhat Pollyanna viewpoint, but as I said in the beginning, competition is everywhere and they will get a chance to compete probably more often than they want.  What are your thoughts on competition?  If you are so moved, please comment below.
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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lessons Learned From a Refrigerator!

So, what can a refrigerator teach us about change in school?

New Fridge -Smudges and all
Our refrigerator died on us a couple weeks ago.  We bought a new one and had it delivered only to realize that we did not measure the height.  The width and depth, yes, but not the height!  So the delivery men took it back and told us we needed to pick out another one.  We didn't like the other ones so... we decided to remove those two useless cabinets above the fridge that store things that we don't need.  We called the delivery company and had them deliver the new refrigerator the next day.  In the meantime, I removed the cabinets... Well, I tried to remove the cabinets.  Unfortunately, they were not stand alone.  They were connected to the two adjacent cabinets.  So, I took apart the cabinets, had the refrigerator installed and then I went about building a faux cabinet looking enclosure by cutting down the original cabinet.  Once again, unfortunately, when I was screwing in a piece of wood (in the same screw hole as before, I might add) the power to the refrigerator went out.  Well, two new electrical outlets, a re-run wire, a hole in my living room wall, and two days of work later, I have electricity to my fridge again. By the way, we love it and we are glad we got it.

The faux cabinet enclosure (not finished)
Why do I tell this story?  Mainly, because I needed to vent.  However, as I was thinking about it, I realized that this story is like so many situations that we encounter when we need to change things in our school.  We have good intentions of improving something only to find that we have gotten in much deeper than we expected. Here is my take on the different ways my fridge experience correlates with my work experience.
  1. While change is inevitable, sometimes it is hard to plan - We had no idea that our refrigerator was going to die on us.  We came home from work one day to a bunch of warm food!  Sometimes in our schools things happen that cause us to make changes.  It could be enrollment shifts, budgetary decisions, unfunded mandates, etc.  The point is while carefully planned change is always best, sometimes we have to change to adapt to the situation with which we are presented.
  2. Mistakes are part of the process, learn from them and move on - Yes, I admit it, I forgot to measure the height, but sometimes when we are working to change something (especially with a deadline) we can miss things.  One missed measurement can scuttle the whole plan.  When we change in our schools we have so many factors to consider that it is nearly impossible to do it alone.  If I had done the measuring of the refrigerator with someone else or several someone elses, we might have caught the missed measurement.  When making change in school we need to involve all of the stakeholders in the planning process; not only so that they can have ownership of the change, but so that the project can be seen from many perspectives and the pitfalls can be avoided.
  3. Sometimes our plans don't fit our situation and we have to make choices - We thought we were going to need to scrap our plans for the refrigerator that we wanted and go with something else; something less desirable to us.  However, we opted to remove the cabinets and change our situation.  When we encounter roadblocks, we have to make decisions. In schools, change is almost always met with roadblocks like resistance from various stakeholders, initial results that are not favorable, or lack of capacity to enact the change.  We can scrap the change or change the situation.  Sometimes the roadblocks are telling us that we made the wrong choice in our change; however, more often we need to reorient our organization to fit the new direction.  If stakeholders are resistant, is it because we haven't done the proper preparation? If our results are initially weak, is it because that is a natural part of the change or because we need to tweak things?  If we lack the capacity to make the change, do we need to provide professional development to be ready?
  4. Change is not easy, sometimes it will cause us to doubt the new direction - The removal of our useless cabinets proved to be much more difficult than initially expected.  As I tried to remove them and realized that their removal would cause a larger reaction with the adjoining cabinets, I had to reevaluate the change.  I almost called the delivery company and told them to hold on the delivery again.  How often has a new program or initiative been introduced into our district and because it became very difficult to actualize it simply faded away?  Usually this pattern leads to the mindset, "If I wait long enough this too shall pass!"  But, with dedication, creativity, and hard work we can persevere and foster the change successfully.
  5. Get others involved in the implementation. Don't try to do it all yourself - In the initial paragraph of this post, it seems as though I have done all of this alone; however, at the point where the cabinets did not come out so easily, I involved my father-in-law.  He is a bit more experienced in this type of job.  We made the decision to take the cabinets apart and then cut them down to create an enclosure.  One of the curses of being an administrator is that we often have a vision of how we want something to happen and have difficulty letting that go to others to be molded and changed.  The problem is that the ideas of others usually enhance and make our ideas better.  They are different than our original idea; however, the value of collaboration is immeasurable.  There is usually someone with more experience or a different point of view to stretch the original plan into something amazing.
  6. It is likely that change will cause some major issues that require a great deal of work. - Seriously, this rebuilding of the cabinet took a total of 45 minutes.  We were very happy with ourselves!  Unfortunately, the last screw (literally, the last one) apparently pierced a wire in the wall (where there should not have ever been a wire) and cut the power to the fridge...and the microwave...and several other outlets.  Ahhhhh!!!. We spent two days mapping the circuit, isolating where the damaged wire fed, and cutting off the dead wire.  We replaced it with a new wire between two new electrical outlets to complete the connection. By the way the outlets on this circuit were crazy.  They spanned two rooms and outlets on opposite sides of the rooms.  In our schools we often have unanticipated problems.  These are different than the roadblocks because these are the "normal" problems that will occur with any change.  For instance, sometimes it is difficult to anticipate that developing and implementing a new program may disenfranchise a group of teachers.  A good example of this would be switching from a basal reading approach to a balanced literacy approach.  Teachers who have been teaching with basal readers for decades may feel that their efforts were good for years, but now switching to a new approach indicates that they have been doing it wrong.  These types of issues are real and need to be addressed. 
  7. Change for the better is worth it! -  At the end of the refrigerator story, I mentioned that we are happy with the new fridge.  This is indicative of coming through any change process.  Once your initial vision has been reworked and your reality has been remodeled, it is usually very satisfying to see the fruits of the change!
  8. A final note on change. - As you can see from the picture below, the wall in my living room took a beating to make this project work.  Change is messy.  No matter how well planned, there will be some things that do not go smoothly; however, just as Spackle can be a homeowner's best friend, organizational skills, interpersonal skills, and leadership skills are the change agent's best friends.

Living room wall - The fridge is on the other side of this wall
This may have been a stretch and it is by no means scientific; however, I believe that we can find lessons in everything that we do.  I hope that my refrigerator can provide some insight into school change.  I know that there are many books out there on change and much research on the subject, but I also know that I have a new fridge and it came with a story that I could share. While I know this is not a comprehensive treatment of change in schools, it's a start.

By the way, stainless steel is a nice idea, but I kind of like my children's fingerprints on fridge.  It lets me know that we live in our home.  Don't be afraid of the "mess" in your school.  It is the evidence that your students, staff, and community are living with those changes.  You can tidy up the mess and know that tomorrow it will be back, just like the fingerprints.  I think that is good.

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

New Connections

Welcome to my new blog, The Principal-Arc! As I was perusing my little used Twitter account a few months ago, I sifted through what all of the Steeler players had to say, then I checked out what some recording artists & movie stars were tweeting, and finally I came to a post by another educator.  It must have been retweeted by a colleague who I happened to follow years ago when I created the account.  There was a link to an article on using Twitter to develop your Personal Learning Network.  At first I was sure they must be wrong because twitter is just a place where you find out who is brushing their teeth or what Ashton Kutcher thinks about world events.  But, to my surprise, as I dug deeper I found that there is a whole world of educators out there posting and sharing with one another.  I was enthused!

I began to follow other educators and I found something that was missing in my professional life: Connections.  As an elementary school principal in a smaller district it is easy to remain nestled in the comfort of those with whom you work on a daily basis.  I must be clear that I work with some phenomenal educators; however, after awhile there is clearly some homogenization of thought and practice that can occur.  What I needed was new ideas, new thoughts, new challenges, new practices, new conversations, new CONNECTIONS!  Twitter has provided that for me.  I am now connected to over 100 educators (quite a small amount compared to some) who allow me to nurture my need for connection and for new and exciting ideas.

Twitter has become my favorite and most effective form of professional development.  It is there whenever I have time.  I can find just about any topic that I want by typing in a search term or a hashtag and if I have a question, I can pose it to those who follow me and to larger groups through the use of the aforementioned hashtags.  The wonderful thing about it is I am getting this PD from experts in the field and by that I mean people just like you and me, practitioners who care enough about the profession to share their knowledge and the resources they have found.  What do they ask in return?  Only that I do the same.

During my short time using Twitter to develop my PLN, I have connected with some amazing educators who are working to develop a strong network of practitioners in my home state of New Jersey.  The hashtag for this group is #njed.  I highly recommend following the folks in this group as they are truly committed to being the best teachers and administrators possible.  Some handles to follow include: @ischoolleader @NMHS_Principal @sirotiak02 @wkrakower @jerseyteacher @AJBianco @pottsedtech @danielle6849 @davezirk @DrSpikeCook.  This is only a few of the people who are sharing amazing things.  Check them out and the rest of the #njed contributors.  Also, this group has bi-weekly chats at 8:30pm on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month.

I have to say that some of the Twitter contributors that I began following in the beginning truly made the difference in my decision to continue down this road into the Twitter-verse.  Some of these include: @l_Hilt @WiscPrincipal @PrincipalJ @shannoninottawa @mcleod @ransomtech @j_Bednar @21stprincipal @stevehargadon @NMHS_Principal @ijukes @Cantiague_Lead @Joe_Mazza.  This list is only partial, as well, but anyone wishing to begin a PD journey on Twitter would do well to follow the educators above.

One more thought for an already too long first blog post... Once you engage in this form of professional development, it is hard to see yourself sitting through traditional In-Service days or traditional conferences.  I foresee making these events more personalized and taking charge of my own learning.  If I go to a national convention, I would get involved to make it more differentiated for those of us who prefer this type of learning.  Additionally, I am planning to attend several EdCamp "unconconferences."  Next Month, I am going to EdCamp Philly and in July I am attending EdCamp Leadership.  These conferences are attendee driven and revolve around the expertise and needs of those at the conference rather than canned programming.  I am also working with the #njed folks to bring an EdCamp to our state!

Thank you for reading my blog and completing my arc.  Please leave a comment if you are so moved.