Lessons Learned from a Decade of Blogging

Are you ready for a truly startling statistic?

This is the 1,000 post that I’ve written on the Radical.

#holycrapchat

If you would have asked me nine years ago what I hoped to get out of blogging, I probably would have told you that my goal was to elevate teacher voice into important conversations on educational policy.  I probably would have told you that I wanted to prove to critics of our profession that folks who choose to make a career in the classroom CAN be experts on everything from school leadership to instructional techniques.  I probably would have told you that I wanted to give readers a better picture of what happens inside our nation’s classrooms every single day.

And my guess is that I’ve accomplished most of those outward-facing goals.  I’ve written extensively about the impact that the policy decisions — think No Child Left Behind, Merit Pay, and Race to the Top — passed over the course of the last decade  have had on my classroom.  I’ve pushed for teacher leadership and professional learning communities and other strategies that empower practitioners.  And I’ve shared countless handouts and lessons in an attempt to help readers improve their teaching or the teaching of the colleagues that they support.

But if you asked me today why I continue to write, I wouldn’t list any of those goals.

Instead, I’d tell you that:

I continue to write because writing gives me weekly opportunities to reflect:

Over the last ten years, I’ve fallen into a pretty comfortable routine — sitting down every Friday night and/or Saturday morning to write for a few hours.  Those hours are selfish moments of reflection for me.  Trying to put my thoughts about issues or instructional practices or policy decisions or my position within this profession into words forces me to think carefully and to polish my thoughts.  Sure, I walk away from the keyboard with a new post a few times a week.  But I also walk away from the keyboard with a better understanding of my own core beliefs about the true nature of teaching and learning.

I continue to write because I see it as my responsibility to give back to the educational commmunity:

One of the things that blows my mind about being an educator in today’s day and age is JUST how easy it is to find valuable resources and ideas.  Gone are the times when finding new lessons or materials was a time-consuming process of ripping through someone else’s file cabinet or subscribing to Mailbox magazine.  Instead, great ideas are a few digital clicks through our Pinterest pages or Twitterstreams away.

But what many forget is that those great ideas aren’t magically dropping out of the sky.  They are being shared by regular people just like you and I who are willingly giving away their best thinking in order to improve education.  The way I see it, if I am going to take from that well of shared knowledge, I have an obligation to give back.  Each post I write is my contribution.

I continue to write because transparency keeps me tempered:

Calling myself the “Tempered Radical” isn’t a mistake.  In fact — as I explained in the very first post written here on my blog — I don’t think there could be a more accurate description of who it is that I want to be.  Being radical comes easy for me.  I am a guy who makes up his mind quickly and is ready to move forward whether you are willing to come with me or not.  I’m also always ready to tell you what I think whether you like it or not.

The hitch is that in my haste to push forward, I often fail to think through all sides of important issues or to listen to people who disagree.  Everything becomes black and white to me.  Merit pay?  Terrible idea.  Race to the Top?  Failing America.  People who work beyond the classroom?  Not as important as us teacher types.  North Carolina’s legislators?  Don’t get me started.

I can’t get away with that here on the Radical.  Take a one-sided stance online and you’ll hear about it pretty darn quickly.  That means when I’m writing about controversial topics or issues, I’m far more thoughtful than I am when I’m shooting the breeze with my buddies over beers.  My positions are more measured and I’m intentional about looking at things from more than one angle.  That matters, y’all.  Not only does it make MY VOICE more powerful because it is reasoned, it makes ME more powerful because I see value in tempered positions.

Long story short:  The most important lesson that I’ve learned in a decade worth of writing here on the Radical is that blogging isn’t about voice or audience or influence in our profession at all.  Instead, it’s about reflection and making contributions and learning through thinking. 

And I can’t wait to do more of it

____________________

Related Radical Reads:

So You Found Me

The Digital Equivalent of Strip Malls

Lessons Learned from an Amazing Group of Student Bloggers

Five Lessons I Learned from My Dad.

Father’s Day Weekend is always a mixed bag of emotions for me.  

Given that I am the proud father of a six year old girl who loves her Dad times ten, I will spend most of my weekend smiling.  There’s just something beautiful about the effort that six year olds put into showing you that they care.  Whether she makes me a hand-drawn card, whips up a special father’s day breakfast of cookies and Capri Suns, or just wants to cuddle on the couch for a while, I will feel the joy that comes along with being the Dad of a daughter!

But I always miss my own Dad on Father’s Day Weekend.

Watching other people spending time with their fathers reminds me of what I lost when he passed away four years ago.  There are lots of moments when I wish I had the chance to learn from and laugh with him just one more time.  There’s just something comforting about knowing that the man who believed in you is still standing on your sideline, ready to cheer you on.

What I realized this morning, though, is that I haven’t lost my father.

In fact, if you look carefully at who I’ve become as a teacher and as a man, you can see him every single day.  He taught me to:

Laugh often, laugh loud, and never take yourself too seriously:  I believe classrooms should be places where laughter is the norm, rather than the exception to the rule.  Why shouldn’t there be a place for playfulness in our lives every day?  That’s something you could always count on from my Dad — he was above all a prankster who loved to tease more than anything — and it’s something that I try to carry with me into most school days.

But never, ever quit:  My Dad was one of the most determined people that I ever knew.  He never gave up on anything — no matter how difficult the task seemed.  And he never let ME give up on anything, either.  You worked to mastery no matter how long that took.  I try to pass that persistence — that sense of “Why quit?  There’s nothing you can’t do!” — along to the kids in my classroom.

Make your own discoveries:  The moments I love the most in my classroom are the moments when one of my students asks me an interesting wonder question about an experiment that we are tinkering with.  Usually, they want me to give them an answer.  My response is straight from my Dad:  “Cool question.  Let’s try it!”  The message I’m trying to send is that YOUR discoveries — no matter how simple they may seem — are more important than what I may know.

Fight for right:  I’m pretty outspoken — intense, even — with the kids in my classroom about their obligation to stand up to the injustice that they see around them.  “Staying silent when you see bullying or unfairness,” I’ll say, “is to fail people who need you.”  That’s a lesson I learned from my Dad, who was willing to speak up to anyone, anytime, and about anything that seemed unfair.

Being strict isn’t a bad thing:  If you asked the kids in my classroom, they’d probably tell you that I can be a pretty strict guy.  If their behavior isn’t acceptable — if they are off-task or inappropriate or irresponsible — I’m going to call them on it.  But I think they’d also tell you that even when I’m “fussing” at them, they know that I care about them and am trying to help them to improve both as learners and as people.  That’s a tricky balance I learned from my Dad — who I never wanted to disappoint, but who I never doubted either.

Being a teacher is a lot like being a father, isn’t it?

Sure, I’m charged with teaching the content detailed in my sixth grade science curriculum.  But what I’m REALLY charged with is teaching the kids in my sixth grade classroom — and that takes a heck of a lot more than knowing how light reacts when it travels through a new medium or why our Earth’s tectonic plates are always shifting.  It takes a commitment to showing kids that who they are is almost always more important than what they know — lessons that I learned from my Dad.

Long story short:  The teacher I have become is a reflection of the father that I had.  For that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

Miss you, Pops.  And love you.  Always.

___________________

Related Radical Reads:

This One’s for You, Dad.

So Much More than a Personal Learning Network

Welcoming the Newest Radical!

My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten

First Comes Achievement. Then Comes Confidence.

A few weeks back, I wrote a bit here on the Radical titled Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid.  In it, I shared the story of my daughter — who came home broken one day because her progress report wasn’t what she expected it to be.  Her peers were earning threes and fours, but her report was covered in twos — and while she knows little about what those numbers really mean, she felt like a failure.  That broke my heart.

A reader named David Cain — who happens to have an equally vibrant six year old daughter — stopped by and left a brilliant comment that you should read in full.  Here’s the part that caught my eye, though:

Your daughter does not “master expected outcomes,” she does much, much more as she already demonstrates mastery of unexpected outcomes. Her own genius shines through the narrow parameters of a grading and assessment system that was poorly able to meet the needs of twentieth-century learning, let alone 21.5-century learning.

David’s right, isn’t he.  EVERY kid learns much, much more than the “expected outcomes” during the course of any given school year.

(click here to enlarge/view/download original image on Flickr)

Slide_MaththatREALLYMattered

Whether it happens inside or outside of our classrooms, our kids are always learning.

Some master new interpersonal skills, giving them the ability to work in groups or to serve as a leader in formal or informal settings.  Some become more confident in themselves, proving once and for all that they really are competent and capable learners.  Some discover their lifelong passions, falling in love with a topic or a subject that leaves them energized every time that they think about it.  Some begin to recognize the connection between their own actions and success, developing the independence characteristic of successful individuals.

Some fail for the first time — and then realize that moving beyond failure is simply a part of a life well-lived.  Some wrestle with difficult friendships and the impact that those relationships can have on one’s well-being and sense of satisfaction.  Some start to see criticism as a form of coaching, designed to improve rather than to destroy.  Some realize that an entire world’s worth of learning is an Internet connection away and begin clicking their way to new discoveries on their own.

What does this all mean for us classroom teacher types?

First, we need to stop defining our students as failures simply because they haven’t yet mastered the small handful of outcomes that schools are required to report on.  

Doing so cheapens “the whole child” that we used to be so passionate about protecting.  In our quest to identify and then remediate “struggling students”(read: the kids likely to score poorly on standardized reading and math exams at the end of the school year), we’ve forgotten that there are plenty of reasons that those exact same students deserve to be celebrated. And whether we will admit it or not, overlooking the successes of struggling students influences our interactions with the kids in our classrooms.  If you are genuinely convinced that a kid is a failure, how likely are you to work hard to help them succeed?

#stewinthatchat

But more importantly, we also have to make sure that our students don’t define THEMSELVES as failures simply because they haven’t yet mastered the small handful of outcomes that we are required to report on.

What I worry about the most with my daughter — who is a mirror reflection of many of the kids in my classroom — is that she has already begun to doubt herself.  She knows that doing well in school is important.  She knows that the “report card” — which is filled out by someone who is always judging her, is sent home in a special envelope a few times a year, and must be signed by her mom and dad — matters more than anything else that happens in school.  She also knows that (1). Kids are being ranked and sorted by the numbers that appear on those report cards and that (2). She’s at the bottom of the pile.

What she doesn’t know is that in a lot of ways, she’s MORE than the intellectual equal of her peers.  She may not have mastered all of her word families yet, but she probably knows more about life in Colonial America than anyone in her class.  It’s true that she’s a level or two behind in her reading, but ask her about how the structures and functions of individual plants aid in the survival of species, and she’ll talk your ear off.  “Tell me more, Daddy!” — proof of her curiosity and her appetite for learning — comes out of her mouth a thousand times a day.

One of the quotes that is currently driving my own thinking about classroom feedback and assessment comes from this Jan Chappius and Rick Stiggins article.  They write:

First comes achievement and then comes confidence.  With increased confidence, comes the belief that learning is possible.  Success must be framed in terms of academic attainments that represent a significant personal stretch.  Focused effort with an expectation of success is essential.  Students must come to honestly believe that what counts here — indeed the only thing that counts here — is that learning results from the effort expended.

If Chappius and Stiggins are right that achievement precedes confidence, that confidence determines effort and that effort leads to success, then our top assessment priority must be to point out to every student the places where they ARE achieving and where they HAVE succeeded through focused effort.  But that can’t happen when our definitions of “achievement” and “success” are limited to “mastering expected outcomes.”  That can only happen when we start to celebrate the unexpected outcomes that our kids are mastering.

#trudatchat

___________________

Related Radical Reads:

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten!

New Feedback Activity: Not Yet/You Bet Lists

 

I am a Cognitive Diabetic.

In a recent interview, Stuart Butterfield — CEO of Slack — compared our communication patterns to the diabetes epidemic plaguing the modern world.  

Butterfield’s argument is a simple one:  Type 2 diabetes became prevalent in the developed world when people gained easy access to empty calories that added little nutritional value to our diets.  In fact, it’s darn near impossible to “eat healthy” in a world where every meal is packed with added sugars and fats.  Need proof?  Check out the amount of sugar in popular yogurt brands — which may as well be considered desserts instead of healthy snacks.  Or Prego Spaghetti Sauce.  Or Nutri-Grain Bars.

#sugarkills

The same trend is happening in my digital life.

My addiction to messaging applications — think email, Facebook, Twitter, Buffer, Pocket, Snapchat, and Instagram — is leaving me buried in empty information that adds little real value to my intellectual life. Sure, I have ready access to a million ideas.  And yes, I can connect with anyone, anytime and from anywhere.  But ready access to a million ideas and anytime/anywhere access to anyone willing to share anything doesn’t always mean that I am better off personally or socially than my parents, who relied on three television channels, the local newspaper, rotary phones with party lines and bowling leagues for information.

I’ve struggled with information overload — which Butterfield calls “cognitive diabetes” — in the same way that bodies struggle with excess sugar.

At first, I pushed against the influx of new ideas — using all of my mental resources to handle and sort and interpret the messages that surrounded me.  I invested extra time and attention into managing my new communication realities in an effort to keep up.  I’d check email several times a day, trying to reply to messages in less than three hours, login to Twitter several times a day to see what I could learn and who I needed to connect with, and use Buffer and Pocket several times a day to follow content and schedule Tweets and “stay in the stream.”  My day began before 5 AM in bed with my phone and my social applications and ended the exact same way sixteen to eighteen hours later.

But this new investment of time and attention is unsustainable.  

I just can’t can’t keep up with the demands of the “new opportunities” surrounding me — so I’ve pulled back.  I can’t tell you the last time that I signed into Facebook or Instagram to see what’s going on in the lives of the people who I follow in those spaces; I’ve lost track of several really good friends that gather in Voxer for regular conversations about sports and education; and I haven’t read or written nearly as many blogs as I’m used to reading and writing.

And in a lot of ways, I feel disconnected.  

My practice seems antiquated because I know little about “the latest and greatest” tools that swirl through sources like Twitter and Facebook.  People who I once connected with several times a week are now nothing more than strangers to me.  It’s been hard to pull back from opportunities given how easy digital tools and spaces make it to jump right in.

But if I’m going to live a healthy life, I’ve got to be able to spot the “extra calories” in my intellectual life in the same way as I keep an eye on the “empty calories” that I pump down my gullet every day.  

Obsessively checking Twitter or replying to email or liking pictures in Instagram or bookmarking content in Pocket or sharing links through Buffer is really no better for me than plowing through six creme-filled doughnuts and a large Heath Bar Swirled Iced Macchiato with Whipped Cream at the Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to work in the morning.

#trudatchat

__________________

Related Radical Reads:

Are You Teaching Kids about Attentional Blink?

Netsmart: How to Thrive Online

What Will YOU Click on Next?

 

 

 

Does Your School have an “Avoid at All Costs” List?

A few weeks back, I shared the story of Carl, a principal friend of mine who was frustrated with the pockets of innovation in his building.

While he knew that good work was happening at all grade levels and in all subject areas in his school, that work was inconsistent.  Some teachers were running with technology integration but ignoring a school-wide reading program.  Others had made PBIS work on their teams or in their classrooms, but did little to integrate the 4Cs into their day-to-day instruction.

My push back to Carl was simple:  Pockets of innovation are almost always evidence of a lack of focus in a school building.  Carl’s faculty wasn’t being resistant by letting important school-wide initiatives fall by the wayside. They just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to make several different significant changes at one time and had decided to prioritize some practices while tabling others.

That’s a survival strategy, y’all.

So what can YOU do to avoid falling into the same trap?  Start by stealing an idea from Warren Buffet and developing an Avoid at All Cost list!

Here’s how:

1).  Make a list of 25 things that your school is currently working on — or that you anticipate working on over the next few years.

Include everything that matters to you and/or your district.  Are you rolling out new devices?  Has your state mandated new diagnostic testing for students in specific grade levels?  Are the NGSS science standards pushing their way into conversations in your district?  Is your school tinkering with intervention or enrichment periods?  Write it all down.  And then have your teachers review it to be sure you haven’t inadvertently missed anything.

2). Circle the five most important items that you find on your current list of projects, programs and priorities.  

Are some of the projects, programs and priorities listed in step one more important than others?  Why?  How do you know?  Which ones are valued by classroom teachers?  Which will have the most direct benefit on student learning?  Are some mandates that can’t be ignored?  Do some have the support of the communities that you serve?  Is your school uniquely suited to implement some initiatives over others?  Structure conversations — within learning teams, during leadership meetings, with parents and students — to get feedback about your five priorities.

3). Invest EVERYTHING into moving forward on your five most important priorities.

Now truly invest in your priorities.  Every purchase that you make should have a direct connection to one of your five priorities.  Every scheduling decision that you make should be tied to one of your five priorities.  Every faculty meeting that you have, every professional development session that you provide, and every message that you share with your parents, teachers and students should focus on one of your five priorities.  Practice what Doug Reeves calls lifeguard leadership and keep your attention on the things that really matter.

4). Turn the remaining 20 items that you have been working on into an Avoid at All Costs list.

The real mistake that schools make when trying to drive change is focusing on too many different projects all at the same time.  That makes every single one of the remaining items on the list you generated in step one a potential pitfall.  Sure, they matter — but when everything becomes a priority, nothing gets done.

So make it clear to everyone in your school community that those items are to be avoided at all costs until the five priorities you settled on in step two have become a part of the fabric of your school.  No matter how much potential you see in the remaining 20 items brainstormed in your original list, you have to push them completely aside if you are truly setting priorities.

You see what’s happening here, don’t you?  

The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward isn’t just identifying a small handful of priorities.  The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward is identifying a small handful of priorities AND actively pushing against everything else that threatens to draw your collective time and attention away from the things that matter most.  Developing an Avoid at All Costs list can help you to do just that.

—————

Related Radical Reads:

Pockets of Innovation = Lack of Focus

School Leadership is a lot Like Lifeguarding

How Clear is YOUR Vision?