Saturday, December 17, 2011

Getting Ready

December is a month of “getting ready”. Getting ready for the holidays, for travel, for parties, and for the New Year. Everyone gets ready in his own way—some make elaborate preparations, and others –well, others do not. Today, my Saturday “getting ready” list was longish and seemed important until I was helped to re-prioritize my day. My husband’s irrefutable logic was, “Why spend a gorgeous Saturday getting ready for a party that doesn’t even happen until after dark on Sunday? So, we abandoned the vacuum in favor of the bikes, and enjoyed an epic ride. Somehow, I know that we are much, much more ready to have a great time at the holiday party after spending several hours in the sunshine. And, I’m pretty sure my feet will be unfrozen by then.
Speaking of “getting ready”, it has been my great pleasure to watch each of of our SLHS faculty make preparations for January Term. Just like holiday parties, we all get ready in our own ways. Some are creating websites, Moodle courses, and blogs. Others have detailed plans on Google Doc Calendars, and spreadsheets. The Senior Internship team has spent hours (and hours) meeting with students and helping them to develop substantive, meaningful projects to benefit their workplace. The Winter Recreation Crew is collaborating with community partners and planning epic adventures for our students. And if you want to be really inspired, talk to Sharon and Gerry about their Environmental Stewardship trip to Florida!
Probably the best thing we could all do to get ready for January Term would be to take a really long bike ride. On the bike, a person notices the color of the sky, the angle of the sun, the direction of the wind, and the myriad shades of brown in the grass. I had the distinct impression today that the world was waiting. Waiting for the snow, the cold, the wind, and the darkness, which must inevitably come. And, somehow, Spring is waiting too. In fact, perhaps Spring is already being born in the stillness under the thin smooth layer of ice on the lakes.
Change always comes with a loss of some sort. For some, it has been hard to finish the semester before it feels “ready”. Yet, we will emerge on the other side of Winter Break with something new. I have often been asked, “What will make January Term different than our regular SLHS classes? The answer lies in our determination to “get ready” for true project based learning, defined by
Authenticity (meaningful, personal, real)
Academic Rigor (interdisciplinary, higher order)
Applied Learning (beyond school, tech-infused)
Active Exploration (field work, investigative)
Adult Relationships (collaborative, professional)
Assessment (meaningful, reflective, presenting)
We are not getting ready with keynote presentations, worksheets, multiple choice exams, textbooks, or lectures. We are getting ready by networking with the community, asking questions, pressing for real-world connections and day-dreaming about what might be. We are getting ready by climbing Bloom’s pyramid to the very top—where creating, designing, inventing and constructing bring the joy of learning to life. Getting ready for January means becoming a learner again…and that feels almost as fun as a bike ride!

Sunday, December 11, 2011


I’ve never been to New Hampshire, but lately, I’ve been “virtually” living there. New Hampshire is a model state in terms of educational reform initiatives, and I have spent many hours on their Dept of Ed website learning about competency based education (CBE) and project based learning (PBL).Since several of our January LIVE classes will be both CBE and PBL, I am trying to assemble brief, functional, and timely descriptions of what that really means for SLHS teachers and students.
New Hampshire’s comparable term to Iowa’s student-centered learning is “personalized learning”.The state of New Hampshire uses a word to describe personalized learning that I have rarely (if ever) encountered intermingled with educational jargon: JOYFUL. The New Hampshire vision for High School Redesign states that personalized learning is joyful:
“Learning is boring when it is forced,
uninspiring and irrelevant in the eyes of the learner.
Learning is joyful when it is interesting, fun,
exciting, challenging, and creates a craving for more.
Personalized learning is joyful.” 1
I heard an illustration of joy just this morning (thanks, Coach Loveall) which made me wonder about the joy in our schools. What if, tomorrow, every student in our school was handed a helium (latex-free hypo-allergenic) balloon as they entered the building? We would instruct the students to release the balloon at the first moment during which they experience learning which is “interesting, fun, exciting, challenging, and creates a craving for more”: in a word, JOYFUL.
Here is the question, “At the end of the day, how many kids would still be holding on to that balloon?”
And, what about us “grown ups”? What if we walked into school on Monday morning with a hypothetical helium balloon clutched in one hand? We can release that balloon as soon as we ourselves are engaged in an “interesting, fun, exciting, challenging, joyful learning experience which creates a craving for more”. Teachers are learners, too, after all.
Am I still holding the balloon at the end of the day?
Joy is one of the most contagious of conditions—and I’m predicting an epidemic in SLHS this January. When I look at the PBL courses are teachers are creating, I know that each one fits the New Hampshire description of joyful personalized learning. Thank you to the SLHS teachers who arrive at school each and every day to model the JOY of learning to our students. It sends a powerful message to the students and community when our whole HS staff is willing to create new courses, work with new schedules, implement innovative models of teaching and learning, taking risks both collectively and individually. To me, that looks a lot like—JOY!
In fact, if I had a balloon in my hand right now, I would let it fly.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

ITTD: Iowa Test of Thanksgiving Development

I wonder what my cumulative “Thanksgiving GPA” would be? I lost my chance at a 4.0 in 1985, when my dad and his wife, Martha Stewart (a.k.a. “Mom”) visited our little home in North Carolina when we were newlyweds. I was doing fine until the marshmallow-covered yams burst into flames, resulting in a small but containable kitchen fire. The 30-pound turkey that I had purchased for the four of us was still raw after hours of cooking. And my overall grade was significantly lowered when my dad discovered the Mrs. Smith’s box from my self-proclaimed homemade pie while he was rummaging through the trash, presumably looking for something to eat.In recent years, my ITTD (Iowa Test of Thanksgiving Development) Scores are remarkably higher on the national norm-referenced scale. Just between you and me, I cheat. Actually, I utilize my resources to encourage collaboration and group-work. Daughter #1 is annually assigned the Vegetable and Bread sections of the test. Daughter #2 works on the Potato and Stuffing free response. Daughter #3 fills in the Bread or Pie bubble sheet. The husband was long ago promoted to Turkey Man, and routinely scores in the top 98th percentile in carving ability. I set the table, provide encouragement and take pictures. Together, we are proficient!
The Flaming Yams Incident of 1985 was a formative assessment. I have moved beyond it—in fact, I have embraced the yams as an important reminder that it is OK not to be perfect. It is OK to ask for help. It is OK to laugh when food is on fire. It is OK to be labeled as “Needs Improvement”.
The four point grading scale was invented 1780 by Yale University. The “A = excellent” thru “F = failed” designation was used first in 1897 by Mount Holyoke College. Over one hundred years later, the College Board reports that 3,113 high schools (91% of the total US schools) still use an “A thru F” grading scale.  The point system can be traced back to World War I, and the multiple-choice test was invented in the 1940’s when technology capable of scoring a bubble sheet first emerged.
I love school, I love grades and I am a multiple choice rock star. In fact, when I graduated, the thing I missed the most about school was the positive reinforcement of “grades”, to which I was firmly addicted. I sometimes still wish I could check a JMC report, just to see what my scores would be in the categories of caring mom, kind wife, loving daughter, trusted friend, education professional, decent person, or even Thanksgiving Dinner Coordinator. In real life, grades aren’t posted and no one is keeping score in a red book (not even God, but that is a different topic). The reflection of who we are is instead carried in the countenance of those around us—and, thankfully, all assessments are formative. Team-work is strongly encouraged, mistakes are expected and failure is just an opportunity to practice forgiveness and to try again. Oh, and there are no “right” answers at the back of the book. You have to make them up as you go along.
I wonder what school would look like, if it were more like real life?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Learning Made to Last

It would not be much of an exaggeration to report that the entire town stopped into the high school office to buy football tickets over the past several weeks. Some folks breezed in and out in a hurry, but most stopped to smile and chat for a minute or two. Michele and Penny smiled and chatted right along with them. We heard the stories and the hopes and the memories of countless alumni, parents, and grandparents.

Cost of a ticket$8
Benefit to school in terms of community pride and relationship building? Priceless.
My favorite question to answer was “Are we going to win?” I liked to reply, “We already have.”
My second favorite question to answer was “Is anyone getting any work done around here?
I wish I had thought about offering a walking tour of the high school to anyone who asked that question during these past few weeks. People would have seen the incredible teaching and learning that happens here: day in and day out, football or no football. I would have liked to have people sit in a government class to listen to guest speakers, campaign discussions, and rousing debates. I would have liked to invite people to the life sciences lab to watch anatomy students teaching elementary kids. Hey, I should have made an enormous graph of lab reports written, tests taken, books read, research papers completed, projects assembled and competencies gained during the football playoff weeks! Next year…
That is the beautiful thing about most kids—they are incredible at juggling, multi-tasking, goal-setting and rising to the occasion just in time. Still, I’m glad that this is a short work-week for all of us, punctuated with “Thanks”-giving.
When we return from the holiday, it will be a race to the finish. For the first time in a long time, the semester ends prior to Winter Break. I can appreciate the challenge of releasing breadth of content when the number of days doesn’t match the number of chapters in the textbook. We will have to collectively decide to go deep instead of wide, finding and firmly grasping the essentials while holding the content details with an open hand. To be honest, I am beginning to see a whole new value to the Iowa Core, and its role in helping time-crunched teachers decide “that which must not be forgotten”. If you ever find yourself feeling like you cannot possibly “cover it all”, take a moment to re-read the IA Core for your discipline. No kidding, you’ll honestly feel inspired!
We don’t cover it all….we cover the core—deeply, rigorously, meaningfully and with purpose.
We CAN do this…we are, after all, Spirit Lake!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Moments and Minutes

I’ve been thinking a lot about TIME lately. Is it linear or cyclical? Should we measure it in moments or in meaning? Why do we use time as a yardstick for learning or productivity? What is lost time, or is there any such thing? Can we bargain for more time or rationalize less time? Do student-days and schedules, semester exams and school calendars really matter as much as I think they do?

We began the school week on Monday with a historic football victory—the radio announcers had to reach back to 1917 to find a comparable year of football glory. I wonder if they’ll still be talking about the 2011 football season in 2111? We ended the school week by gathering on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year in the 21st Century—to celebrate heroes past and present on Veteran’s Day. I like numbers and symbols, so I was glad that our school didn’t let the day pass unnoticed. Together, we made the moment meaningful.

It’s true that 11/11/11 will happen only once in our lifetime. But, when you stop to think about it, every date happens only once in a lifetime! That is the very nature of time.
Linear. Progressive. Unvarying. Sequential.

As educators, we have come to associate the passage of time with learning. We award credit based on the Carnegie Unit—measured in minutes of time spent in a classroom, at a desk, learning under the direct supervision of a certified instructor. We like the Carnegie Unit. Every student is awarded one credit for 120 hours of class time. Simple. The Carnegie Unit implies that being in a teacher’s presence for a predetermined amount of time will cause 1.0 credit of learning to occur. Nice. Tidy. Standardized. Quantified.
As a further measure of learning, we superimpose a grading scale on top of the credit system, so that a GPA can be calculated. Once a credit is recorded, the GPA is determined and is irrevocable. No second chance—the 89.4% is forever a “B+”. Unlike the game of football, the game of “School” doesn’t offer a fresh start every season. You carry your win/loss record with you, year after year. Oh, and you play alone. No team. No cheerleaders. No band. Just you and the game we call “school”.

Lately, I have started to wonder if learning really can be measured in minutes and multiple-choice tests. Maybe that is why I am so excited about January LIVE. What if we try something so radically new in our school that learning happens outside of the classroom, and cannot be quantified by a GPA? What if we award credit based on competencies rather than Carnegies? What if the moments matter more than the minutes? What if every kid had a chance at a winning season, every time they took the field?

We’re going to “lose” a day’s worth of minutes from first semester on Monday, November 14th 2011…but we won’t lose the learning! We’ll learn about community pride and good sportsmanship. We’ll learn about hard work and working from the heart. We’ll understand leadership and character and team-building, and bonding. What we lose in minutes, we’ll make up for in moments.

11/14/11 will only happen once in our lifetime---Let’s Win The Day!!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing

November 6, 2011
It’s November. It’s colder, darker, windier and stormier. We’re tired….and it’s a long while ‘til Thanksgiving.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about group dynamics, and the culture of SL high school. Many of us have been co-workers for more than a decade. Over the years, we have developed pretty firmly established patterns of group interaction. And yet, our community is dynamic. It grows and changes with the seasons in a way that is truly unique among institutions. If you research “stages of group development”, you’ll find that nearly every community experiences periods of cooperation and conflict, metamorphosis and growth. One of the most popular models of group development is Tuckman’s: “Forming. Storming. Norming. Performing.” I’m no sociologist, but I think we’re “storming”, right along with the November winds.
Maybe if we name the stage, we can more readily brace ourselves against the stormy winds and move beyond them. My husband likes to remind me, “There is no such thing as bad weather: just inadequate gear.” Consequently, we have a basement full of four-season tents, sleeping-bags (good to -30oF), headlamps (in case of unanticipated darkness?), helmets, snow-shoes, and cross country skis. We are ready.
I have to wonder, “How can we weather the “stormy” season of group development, which is so predictable and so normal, yet sometime so hard to endure?” Perhaps we just need the right gear. A little patience and a good measure of stoicism. A lot of laughter and a willingness to think the best of each other, defend each other and believe in each other, no matter what. And appreciation. A lot of appreciation for the good in each other.
Meanwhile, we can learn a lesson from our students—they are usually our best teachers. Cross-country runners understand endurance, pain, and running until every ounce of energy is spent. They also understand the importance of giving thanks. Last week, Coach Heinitz received this email:
“Tim- I wanted to first off congratulate you and your team with making it to the state cross country meet. I have worked the finish line for a number of years, and it isn't always the most fun or appreciated spot on the course. I was touched by the gratitude your athletes had as I escorted or pulled your athletes to a safe spot. Two members on your squad vocalized their appreciation by saying simple words of “Thanks", not always the easiest thing to do after pushing your body to these amazing limits. I don't hear those words often so I wanted to make sure your guys, and you as well, know what a class-act I thought they were. Thank you for teaching your guys character as well as a strong work ethic.”
It’s November. It’s colder, darker, windier and stormier—but Thanksgiving is coming, and for some, Thanksgiving is already here.

Friday, November 4, 2011

My Classroom, My Castle

Last Friday, I walked in “sacred spaces”. As I toured the Spirit Lake middle school classrooms, I entered without knocking, I walked through without speaking, and I left without a trace. I took notes on an iPad and recorded my observations on a Google Doc. But what moved me most, that which I cannot measure or tabulate, was the lingering impression that I had entered into sacred spaces, the places where teachers and learners meet, and lives are transformed.
I stepped into the silence of free reading, and wanted to open a book to stay for a while. I walked into the beautiful mess of a 6th grade science lesson, and was tempted to pull up a chair to soak in the magic. In a math classroom, I felt the angst of a Friday test, and I appreciated the quiet strength of the teacher who was determined to bring her kids through it. In every room, I read the posters on the walls, the assignments on the white board, the lessons on the screens. The classroom teacher builds a world for his students—a world of wonder and work, a world of motives and meaning. In a very real way, the classroom becomes a vessel for the chemical reaction between the teacher and the students ---and the unique product is as unpredictable and as volatile as the reagents themselves.
We live on a lonely planet. I think that most of us became teachers because we believe that education builds connections between people, strengthens communication and opens doors. How ironic, then, that we teachers usually work behind closed doors, in relative isolation. If my classroom is my castle, I confess, I sometimes build a pretty high wall around it. I taught chemistry for ten years in our district, and never invited a fellow teacher to visit my classroom to share a moment in my world. After my experience last Friday, I realize the tragedy of that.
There is great power in partnership. I felt so inspired, so encouraged, and so proud to be a part of our school district after spending time in the middle school classrooms. My new, deep hope is to find a way that every one of us could catch a glimpse of the amazing teaching and learning which is happening, just on the other side of the walls. And, the gift returns to us as we share our own classrooms with our colleagues. The pride of craftsmanship and the warmth of hospitality extended to each other become the cornerstones of a strong learning community.
On Monday, the High School and the Elementary School will experience the “walk through”. We will see students at the center of the learning experience: doing, making, building, collaborating, creating and, yes, learning. Beyond that, we will see a team of education professionals who pour their hearts into their jobs, like rain on dry ground. As we begin to see the diversity of the classroom experiences within our school building, we will gain an appreciation of the unique strengths that each teacher brings. There is no doubt that we are better together. Open doors, welcoming attitudes and unhindered transparency will make us stronger—we are, after all, people who love people.
If I recall, that’s why we are teachers in the first place.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sleep When You Can. Eat When You Can. Don't Touch the Pancreas.

October 30, 2011
Last week, my daughter was home from college for her Fall Break. She jumped at the chance to attend last Friday’s football game so she could watch the band march at half time. :) The whole game long, Sarah kept looking around and asking, “Is this really Spirit Lake High School? What is happening here?” She is not the first one in our community to ask that question. Sarah graduated just three years ago, but she hardly recognizes her alma mater. For Sarah, the change is not about the physical structure of the football field or the metal stands—the change is in the community spirit. It’s always the intangibles that we cannot measure which really count.

Anyone looking at Spirit Lake High School from the outside would wonder what is going on around here! Football, cross-country, volleyball, swimming, All State Music, debate: to infinity, and beyond!  I can’t figure it out myself. Is it just our turn to ride the wave of success? Is there something in the water? Is it the turf? The bell? The computers? The students? The coaches? The smith factor? The school board? All of the above?

What I do know is that a school is made up of people—frail, vulnerable, fragile and fallible. As teachers and coaches, we are the leaders of the people in our school community—and, as such, responsible for their care. They are, after all, just kids. We stand ready to fill them up with a kind word, an encouraging note, and a smile. Even the most confident athlete, musician, or scholar may be carrying burdens we aren’t aware of. That point was driven home to me many years ago when one of our school’s top athletes came in on a Friday game day to take a make-up exam. He was in the back storage room working on his test when I stopped in to check on him. I found him with his head down on the desk, crying. And, no, it wasn’t about the chemistry exam. His folks were divorcing. The players on the field or on the stage are frail, vulnerable, fragile, fallible and just kids. It is our great duty and privilege to serve them every day.

Meanwhile, we take care of each other, too. There is as much (or more) stress associated with high profile success as with high profile loss. Circle the wagons. We are all on the same side of the same team. We cheer for each other, we pull for each other and we literally pour kindness into each other.If we don’t support each other, who will? Like many of you, I felt overwhelmingly tired when this past week was over. As Bilbo Baggins would say, “sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” Where do we, as teachers and coaches, find the passion to keep caring, to continue working, and to never stop trying? How do we avoid cynicism and discouragement in the face of failure? How do we stay “humble and hungry” in the face of success? The answer speaks to the center of who we are. This place we call Spirit Lake High School is really just the people that inhabit it. We are Spirit Lake.

So, friends, have a good week. I have a feeling (given all the events scheduled for the next five days) that we’ll need to live by a slogan from my husband’s residency years:
“Sleep when you can. Eat when you can. Don’t touch the pancreas.”
I’m not sure what that means, but it seems like good advice.
Meanwhile, circle the wagons.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Parent Teacher Conferences and a Trip to the Dentist

October 22, 2011

Parent-Teacher Conferences loom on the horizon. Normally, I find myself looking forward to P/T Conferences almost as much as I relish a trip to the dentist. Last week, however, we scrounged around in the office to find the old name-cards, and wooden stands that were fashioned by Peg Voss and Rich Hildebrand “back in the day”. We’ll use them again on Thursday, October 27 and Tuesday, November 1. Many of you recall that we used to hold P/T Conferences in the gym and commons area, but then we moved to individual classrooms in order to be close to our desktop computers. The mobility of our laptops now allows us to return to the open house setting-- and I couldn’t be happier!

When we gather in a common area, we present a framework of collegiality, cooperation, teamwork and a professional learning community that has long been absent in our P/T Conference evenings. In isolation and behind closed doors, P/T Conferences actually did resemble dental appointments, far too often. The poking and scraping and probing. Rinse and repeat. The inevitable scolding about flossing more often. And sometimes, a dreaded cavity that results in my worst fear: a follow-up appointment! Ugh.
Why would any parent sign up for that?
Arena style conferences offer a different possibility. What if we could create a setting in which teachers spent more time listening than talking? What if we didn’t even pull up a grade report, but instead we leaned forward in our seats, looked parents in the eye and asked, “How can I be a better teacher for your child?” What if we saw Parent/Teacher Conferences as an opportunity to change ourselves, rather than a chance to fix or reform our students and their parents?
When I first began teaching, I foolishly thought that I knew more about the kids than their parents did. Year after year, I actually believed it was my duty to complain about tardiness, late homework and poor study habits. Seriously? As if the parents didn’t already know? Not once did I ask, “What insight can you give, which will help me to better understand your child?” One year, however, I finally stopped talking long enough to listen. I had a student who was always, always, always tardy for first hour class. As the TUO count grew in his record, my irritation was directly proportional. I was thrilled when his mom showed up at P/T Conferences so I could launch my attack. She listened patiently, and then quietly explained, “Mrs. Webb, we have five children and one bathroom in the house. Ben is the oldest and I have asked him to be last. He is tardy because he is obeying me, and helping with his younger brothers and sisters.”
I didn’t have much to say after that. I later spoke with Ben and we privately established the earliest possible time that I could expect him to arrive in first period class. If he made that mark, no tardy was recorded. Next semester, Ben had a study hall during first hour, at my request. He was always on time for 5th period chemistry and we all lived happily ever after.
On Thursday, Oct 27 and Tuesday, Nov 1 we’ll be listening, caring, collaborating and changing—ourselves.
Oh, and don’t forget to FLOSS!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Living Like It's 2011

It is one thing to say you believe in the need for radical change in education. It is another thing entirely to try to do it. For me, the difficulty lies in the fact that I find traditional teaching and learning to be a pretty comfortable niche for me. When I first began teaching here two decades ago, my students trained me. They asked for daily worksheets and daily points to earn, so I gave them daily worksheets and homework points. They asked for review sheets, multiple choice tests and cookbook “guaranteed-not-to-fail” labs, so I gave them review sheets, multiple choice tests and cookbook “guaranteed-not-to-fail” labs. They learned the chemistry that I told them to learn. And, for the most part, they forgot the chemistry shortly after completing each unit…and we all lived happily ever after.
Today’s student seems to be asking for something radically different. They do not care so much about earning homework points, and they have to dig pretty deep to even care about the tests. I can beg them, threaten them, cajole them and reward them—and some will still refuse to wake up enough to take notes during a lecture or spill ink on a worksheet. True, some kids are able to adapt to my style of teaching and learning. I can reward those kids with an “A” and complain about the rest. But, here is the scary part: I am beginning to realize that even the kids who decide to play the game of School and win are not necessarily winning in the long run. At some point, every kid needs to learn how to think, how to create, how to evaluate and how to make mistakes and learn from them. The chemistry course that I used to teach encouraged just about the exact opposite. I taught my students how to solve each problem (my way), how to do chemistry labs (my way), how to evaluate themselves and others (my way), and how not to make mistakes—ever.
It has taken me a long time, but I have finally committed myself to change. Last week, I threw away my old traditional chemistry course. For three years, my basement has stored boxes jammed with dozens of binders with carefully preserved worksheets, exams, labs, activities and overhead transparencies. I held my breath, closed my eyes and tossed it all into green trash bags.

I needed a very long bike ride after it was all over. As I pedaled around the lake, I thought about the difference between saying you believe in something, and really living like it. I don’t know what the future of public education is going to be, but I finally understand that it isn’t resting in my basement in a three-ring binder.
Our SLHS students are living and learning, growing and changing today. Let’s go be a part of it!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Starting Somewhere

This Friday, we’ll participate in an organized walk along with tens of thousands of other Iowans. The Oct 7th event is a part of the Healthiest State Initiative, and is called the “Start Somewhere Walk”. Don’t worry if you haven’t been training: the official distance is one kilometer. Heck, I walk farther than 1.0 K to get from my couch to the refrigerator and back to the couch! When I saw the official distance, I wondered what the organizers were thinking. Why not a mile? Or, perhaps a 3-K?
Then I realized that the title of the walk explains the length of the route. We all need to Start Somewhere. In this life, we will each eventually face an insurmountable battle—the place where we reach the limit of our ability, our strength, our endurance, our intellect, etc. At that moment, we have to stop. To wait. And then, to Start Somewhere (again). It seems to me that in the area of our own greatest accomplishment, we ought to be the most willing to extend the greatest compassion to others. If I am a marathon runner, I should be the most thrilled when an elderly gentleman struggles to walk a kilometer. If I am a Nobel Prize winning poet, I should be the most moved by the literary efforts of a melancholy teen. If I am a concert pianist, I should love the simple piano playing of a young child.
I know that I did not always extend that level of compassion to my students. Chemistry seems so beautifully logical to me, I was often perplexed by kids that simply couldn’t “get it”. As high school teachers, we work in the academic area of our greatest proficiency. Add to that the fact that most of us have been teaching for so long that we know our content forwards, backwards and upside down—we might forget that our students are often in the process of “Starting Somewhere”. The challenge faced by great teachers is to find compassion for the student who completes the “1.0 K” after extraordinary effort, while at the same time convincing some of our students to run a marathon, just because we know they can. For every kid, great teachers figure out a way to “Start Somewhere.” It’s only October, and I have already seen the SLHS faculty doing some extraordinary academic coaching, coaxing--and even carrying.
I asked one of our new transfer students how she liked Spirit Lake, and I want you to hear her reply. She said, “The teachers here care about me and want to know me.  That is different from my old school, and I feel so welcome in this place.”
Now, that is starting somewhere.  Well Done.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

One Unshakable Vision (?)

Education in Iowa is making the news lately—it’s a hot topic in the Des Moines Register. You will want to take the time to read Gov. Branstad’s “One Unshakable Vision”: it’s a blueprint for education reform. For me, the interesting part begins on page 11, “A Spirit of Innovation in Education”. I find this section to be a strong endorsement of the direction that SLHS is moving: 1:1 initiative, project based learning, creative scheduling (January LIVE), and perhaps even credits earned via competency based assessments, rather than seat-time.
As a science-geek, I intuitively approach most of life’s questions using the scientific method. I research like crazy. I formulate a hypothesis. I design a carefully controlled experiment to test the hypothesis. I draw conclusions from the experiment. And then I start again. That is the way that I have approached January LIVE. I have spent countless hours researching Project Based Learning and its varied implementation across a wide spectrum of schools and content areas. We have together designed a school-wide experiment to test the hypothesis: “SLHS students will benefit from a student-centered approach to real-world problem solving in an academically rigorous environment.” We are in the process of conducting the experiment. And, of course, my mind is already flying ahead to wonder, “What’s next?”
Scientific investigation is never finished: one good experiment leads to another! Albert Einstein worked on his “theory of everything” until his death, never quite content with the direction that quantum mechanics had taken. Likewise, as educators, we understand that we will never arrive at a perfect system of education. No system works for every learner. But, what we also know is that we live, work and teach at a time during which systemic change in education has become not only possible, but also pragmatic. The computer in every kid’s backpack brings differentiated learning and personalized instruction to the table in a whole new way. Individualization in learning isn’t the frosting on the cake anymore—it is the bread and water, the very substance of teaching and learning in the 21st century.
I think that our January LIVE experience in PBL will be just exactly that. Last week, an outspoken freshman told me that he thought January LIVE was a bummer, because none of the classes looked “fun” to him. I was about to render a scathing reply when the boy next to him interrupted me to respond, “Don’t you get it? We can learn about whatever we want to learn! You can make any class fun, because every class lets you do your own project. January is whatever you make it.”
OK, at least one kid gets it. Now, for the remaining three hundred ninety-nine!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Treasure in Every Field

I grew up in Omaha, where corn comes from containers in the frozen food aisle. When we moved to Spirit Lake, I loved to watch the agricultural process. From barren fields to the long stretches of tall green corn standing upright even in the hot July winds—I counted the farmers to be among the most optimistic and productive people I had ever met. Who would have faith enough to pour money and time and energy into a project of such variable outcome? There are no guarantees in farming. A farmer might do everything “right”, and still lose a crop to hail or drought, frost or fire.
In fact, during all of our first seasons in Spirit Lake I noticed that the corn crop was lost to drought, year after year. I watched the corn go from gorgeous green to crispy, dried up, wasted brown and I would pray, “God, again? The corn crop is a complete loss, again?” One such September I expressed my sadness about the harvest to a farming friend. Dave thought for a minute and then asked, “Kari, would you like to ride in the combine with me sometime this week?” I accepted the invitation and soon found myself in the cab of an enormous John Deere. We drove the combine through the rows of drought-stricken, dead corn and I thought about the wasted crop—all that effort and time and money! “It’s really too bad, Dave,” I said. He replied, “Kari, turn around.” I twisted around in the seat, and gasped. An avalanche of golden corn kernels was pouring into the truck, already brimming with a growing corn mountain! The crop had not been lost! It was just hidden among shriveled brown husks and dying leaves. The treasure waits for the harvest.
Mid-term grades are due this Monday, and many of you have spent a busy week grading papers and recording scores. Already, we may be feeling like our efforts to plant seeds, to water, to nourish and to grow are being wasted. By the time our students reach the high school, they have been thru more than a decade of planting and harvesting, tilling and toiling. For some students, the soil is depleted, the ground is tired and the crop yield appears questionable. But, like farmers, teachers are the most optimistic and productive people that I know. There are no guarantees in teaching, yet we never lose hope in the harvest. Teachers don’t measure the abundance of a harvest by the way the crop looks on the outside. Teachers know that the treasure is often hidden, waiting for someone with enough energy to work on its growth and enough faith to wait for the right time to bring in the harvest.
Thanks for being teachers that hold on to hope, and find treasure in every field.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Homecoming Reflections, 2011

I imagine that the intent of Homecoming is reflecting, remembering, reuniting, and reconnecting. The week’s events build strong memories for our students that ultimately solidify as longstanding community celebrations. During Homecoming Week, the school and community intersect to bring the “We Are Spirit Lake” phrase to life.
We are Spirit Lake. We decorate lockers, we attend games, we bring treats, we cheer loudly. We are Spirit Lake. We honor retirees, we recognize alumni, we celebrate life’s seasons. We are Spirit Lake.We care for each other. We grieve with each other—in unexpected loss, we hold each other up. We bring meals, we attend funerals, we write sympathy cards, we listen. We are Spirit Lake. We look for the teachable moments, even during Friday Pep Rallies. We are Spirit Lake. We laugh with ourselves, at ourselves and despite ourselves.
We are Spirit Lake. We win football games!
It has been a good week. Each and every staff member went above and beyond: some front and center and others, quietly behind the scenes. Deep thanks to you all…
Next week will mark the half-way point of first quarter! As we help our students to settle into an academic routine, let’s remember that their first weeks of school have been a whirlwind. While we adults tend to focus our energies on a single extra-curricular area, many of our students participate across multiple venues: sports, music, drama, dance, work and (of course) academics, too! Sleep deprivation in teenagers is a well-documented cultural reality, impacting our student’s emotions, performance, and personality. I am glad that the kids will have Monday to rest!
Our Professional Development Monday will be filled with productivity and collaboration as we work together to create some of the most challenging, student-centered, academically rigorous and uniquely relevant courses ever offered at the high school level. No kidding, January LIVE is turning into something bold and transformative in the teacher’s hands. I can’t wait to see what we can build together on Monday!

Monday, September 12, 2011

January LIVE Premier: Huge Success!

We have much to celebrate at Spirit Lake High School
The attendance at our January LIVE Premier left me completely stunned. More than three hundred parents and students poured into the SAMI Center on a gorgeous September evening to hear about our Project Based Learning initiative. The overwhelming support and enthusiasm is a direct result of the remarkably engaging, rigorous and relevant classes that you have created. You can and should feel a sense of professional pride and accomplishment. Every student tells me the same thing: “There are so many good classes, I cannot choose just one!” And the most frequent comment from parents? “I wish that I was back in high school so that I could enroll in some of these classes!”
The next January LIVE challenge is Registration! Our new tech-geek, Ryan Friederich has created a Google Form for course enrollment. We will open registration to seniors first—and our hope/goal is that many will choose to complete an off-campus Internship experience. Please encourage senior students to “Dream Big!” This is an amazing opportunity to explore career aspirations, and to make connections having a lasting life-impact. My tentative schedule for January LIVE Registration: Sept 20-23 (Seniors), Sept 26-29 (Juniors), October 3-6 (Sophomores), and October 10-13 (Freshman).
Now, of course, the main event is HOMECOMING! This will be a fun week with dress-up days, coronation, sporting events, games, dances, and parades. We will celebrate the victories, the royalties, and the festivities. At the same time, please keep a compassionate eye out for the students that are on the outside, looking in. I was one of “those kids” during Homecoming at Omaha Westside High School. I wasn’t in sports. I did not cheer. I had no date for the dance and no plans to attend the football game. On any “normal” week at school I was fine—but Homecoming and Prom were tough times for the nerds like me. I imagine it is the same in 2011 as it was in 1982. As a staff, let’s take the time to look for the students that need an encouraging word—and perhaps even surprise a few with anonymous, random acts of kindness.
Remember, every student at SLHS is "royalty" in the sense that we are together working toward bringing out the very best that every student can be.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Sept 5: Week One is in the Books!

Let the learning begin!
I think most people have no idea how intense the first week of school is for teachers. We know, of course, that the students are adjusting, struggling and settling into a new routine. But few realize the monumental energy that is expended by teachers from the first morning bell ‘til the final release.
For teachers, perhaps the first week of school is a lot like the Brooks Cross Country Meet that I watched last Tuesday. The runners fly down the first hill at the starting gun, buoyed by the excitement of the cheering crowd and the hope of a great victory. They move in a pack for only a short while, and then find a comfortable pace. Some run alone, focused and intense in their race. Others run with teammates, pace-making for each other.
At the Brooks CC race, our top two varsity runners know the course well, and they sprinted up the final grueling hill like warriors. The cheering crowd was amazed by their strength and speed. I watched some teachers finish like those two front-runners on Friday—confident, strong, ready to run again. Other teachers ended the week more like a certain runner who finished deep in the pack. This young man moved up the last hill with dogged determination. He crossed the finished line and stumbled out of the chute gasping for air, having given the race every possible effort. His dad came to his side, held him upright, and spoke quiet words of praise and encouragement and a father’s pride. I witnessed a few SLHS teachers finish on Friday like that young runner—spent and breathless, yet triumphant!
Well done, friends! Your preparation paid off, and every teacher crossed the finish line, one way or another. J
Favorite Moments of Week One:
***Accidental amphibian escape (screaming students standing on chairs—gotta love it!)
***Freshman Follies and paper airplanes in the hallway. Free to fly.
***Testing the intercom (repeatedly) during 7th period. Nice.
***Second period: Senior antics—keep a sharp eye out, folks!
***Revolutionizing Video Production and Journalism. I cannot wait for Newsbreak!
***The Attack of The Cucumber (my personal favorite): nearly one hundred cucumbers mysteriously appeared in the workroom overnight, a shared abundance.
May the seeds we plant each day produce such a bountiful harvest.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Are you Ready??

Up and down the East Coast, the question of the week is, “Are you ready for Hurricane Irene?” Bottled water? Check. Non-perishable food? Check. Boarded up windows? Check.Batteries? Check. In Spirit Lake, the question of the week is, “Are you ready for SLHS students?”From the SLHS Weather Channel, here is the latest Student Storm Watch with On-the-Scene Reporter, Kari Cantori.

The SLHS Student Storm has been upgraded to a Category I Event, with a student population approaching 400 ppl according to some computer models. Students are expected to make landfall at approximately 8:10 AM CST on Monday, August 29th. Student Storm will escalate by third period, as seniors with open-campus arrive on-shore. Parking in the back HS lot is expected to be congested and unpredictable, since many students are first-time school drivers. Extreme caution is urged: bike-riding is advised if possible.
In preparation for Student Storm, our maintenance team has been working around the clock. All classrooms (including the geothermal remodeled rooms) have been made ready. The SLHS Off-Shore Island is also ready for students, again due to the heroic efforts of the SLHS maintenance team. Desks are clean, floors are waxed, furniture is arranged: the physical plant stands ready for Monday’s epic event.
One of the biggest impacts anticipated from Student Storm is stress to the power grid. The Chief Engineer, assures SLHS that every effort has been made to accommodate the 1:1 technology needs of the Student Storm population. Computers are safely stored in shelters until distribution and deployment, scheduled for 1:00 PM in individual classrooms. Students without a classroom assignment will be directed to the safe-haven shelter in the Black Box for computer distribution.Volunteers will staff the area.
Finally, the front-line preparation work for Student Storm rests in the capable hands of our teaching staff. No casualties are anticipated. Syllabi have been stock-piled, seating charts prepared, and engaging activities are planned to ease student stress upon arrival. The SLHS Weather Service anticipates that students will need extra care and personalized attention. In response to that prediction, the SLHS faculty will greet every student with friendly smiles, optimism, and genuine warmth.
Blue skies, fair winds and calm seas will be in place as early as 8:15 AM CST on Monday, 8/28

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tools of Our Trade

Last Saturday, I visited one of my favorite second-hand stores in town. I sometimes get lost among the odd collections of chairs, groovy retro lamps, antique glassware or old, oxidized copper pans. I think I love "the hunt" as much as "the find".
I had circled through the aisles a couple of times when I noticed a wooden cylinder pushed to the back of a shelf. I thought it might be an old kaleidoscope, and my heartbeat escalated. As I turned it around in my hand, I realized that it was a small container, and I pulled the top off with care. I held my breath with anticipation of the treasure I would find inside.

And, oh, what a treasure!

I held the thin wooden pencil in my hand, and ran my finger along the graphite-smeared edge of the ruler. I drew out the ink pen gingerly and studied its shape. I wondered about the student who long ago used these tools to learn his numbers and letters.
I hoped he liked school, and I reasoned that the careful preservation of this pencil box was evidence of that. I hoped he had a teacher who was patient, a world that was big, and a dream that was realized. As I carefully tucked the items back into their container, I couldn't help thinking about how the tools of teaching and learning have changed. What evidence of 21st century education will be hidden on the back shelf in a thrift store a hundred years from now?

In the end, the tools won't matter. What mattered in schools back then is the same thing that matters now: the students, the teachers, the world and the dreams.

The tools we can carry in our backpacks. The treasure, we carry in our hearts.