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!