Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Malcolm London's "High School Training Ground"

Last night's TED Talks Education on PBS was a showcase of some of America's greatest thinkers in education. If you missed it, take the time to watch. It is well worth it. It expanded my vision of education and reenergized my professional commitment.

I was particularly entranced by Malcolm London, a 19-year-old poet from Chicago, who is a teaching artist with Young Chicago Authors. I was not previously familiar with his work and was immediately taken with his confidence and ability to reflect on how America's educational system effects the lives of students.

As a visual learner, I needed to see what he was saying. I felt as if I was missing a nugget of his wisdom. So, here's a video and transcription of his poem, "High School Training Ground." He edited this version for his TED talk, but the impact is the same.

High School Training Ground
by Malcolm London

At 7:45 AM, I open the doors to a building dedicated to building yet only breaks me down.
I march down hallways cleaned up after me everyday by regular janitors, but I never have the decency to honor their names.
Lockers left open like teenage boys' mouths when teenage girls wear clothes that covers their insecurities, but exposes everything else.
Masculinity mimicked by men who grew up with no fathers.
Camouflage worn by bullies who are dangerously armed, but need hugs.
Classrooms overpacked like book bags.
Teachers paid less than what it costs them to be here.
Oceans of adolescents come here to receive lessons, but never learn to swim.
Part like the Red Sea when the bell rings.
This is a training ground.

My high school is Chicago, diverse and segregated on purpose.
Social lines are barbed wire.
Hierarchy burned into our separated classrooms.
Free to sit anywhere, but reduced to divided lunch tables.
Labels like honors and regulars resonate.
This is a training ground.

Education misinforms.
We are uniformed.
Trained to capitalize letters at a young age.
Taught now that capitalism raises you, but you have to step on someone else to get there.
This is a training ground.

Sought to sort out the regulars from the honors.
A reoccurring cycle built to recycle the trash of this system.
I am in honors classes, but go home with regular students, who are soldiers in a war zone in territory they don't really own.
When did lives become expendable?
CPS is a training ground centered on personal success.
CPS is a training ground concentration on professional suits.
CPS is a training ground.

One generation is taught to lead.
The other is made to follow.
No wonder so many of my people spent bars, because the truth is hard to swallow.
The need for degrees has left so many of my people frozen.
The educated aren't necessarily the educated.
I have a 1.9 GPA.
Got drunk before my ACT and still received a 25.
Now, tell me how I'm supposed to act.

Homework is stressful, but when you go home everyday and your home is work, you don't want to pick up any assignments.
Reading textbooks is stressful, but reading doesn't matter when you feel your story is already written, either dead or getting booked.
Taking tests is stressful, but bubbling in a Scantron doesn't stop bullets from bursting our direction, hasn't changed.
When our Board of Education is driven by lawyers and businessmen, only one teacher sits on that Board.
Now, tell me what does that teach you.

I hear the education systems are failing, but I believe they are succeeding in what they're built to do.
To train you, to keep you on track, to track down an American dream that fails so many of us all.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Exploration into Project Based Learning

Winterboro High School
Last week, teachers from my school visited Winterboro High School to explore the incorporation of project based learning (PBL). We are interested in students taking responsibility for their learning in a more engaging environment. During our visit, we were impressed with how students from a low socioeconomic area utilize their resources to problem solve real life situations. Our students have access to any needed resource, but do not delve into such in-depth problem solving and critical thinking. We were a little ashamed of what we offer our students.

We did have some concerns with aspects of PBL. A few Winterboro teachers discussed the amount of time required to plan for PBL. Time for collaboration in elementary school is limited and we are unsure of how to manage this time constraint. Winterboro teachers were also concerned with covering required content, although their test scores show that they are meeting all necessary benchmarks. Our students may have a more meaningful and in-depth experience, but they may be missing some areas of the content. At Winterboro, projects were mainly completed at school. Most nights students do not have homework. Winterboro teachers are concerned that their students do not have the resources to complete their projects at home. Our concern is that our parents will complete the projects for the students if they are sent home. Most of the Winterboro teachers were in the first six years of their career. With a completely tenured faculty, we are concerned that we may be too set in our ways to make an easy incorporation of PBL.

After we visited a few classes, many of us felt that we were already using PBL. We all incorporate projects as part of student learning. Then, one teacher explained how the projects drove the students' exploration. In our classes, students are taught the necessary material and then, assigned a project at the end of the unit to assess knowledge. In PBL, students feel driven to learn the concepts, so that they can solve a problem. For example, in a collaborative math and music class, Winterboro students were composed musical ostinatos using found sounds by formulating one and two step mathematical equations. They were taught pre-algebra concepts and rhythmic notation as they were needed to complete their project. Here's their composition:

A distinction must be recognized between PBL and project oriented learning. This video clearly explains the difference.

Students commit to graduate
Winterboro has a clear commitment to student success. When students enter their freshman year, they sign a commitment to graduate. Since utilizing PBL, graduation rates have improved, college acceptance rates have increased, and the drop-out rate has dropped to zero. On our visit, Winterboro students were the tour guides. They were well spoken, engaged in our discussions, and quick to answer questions. I see great success in their future! Graduating seniors are honored for their accomplishments. One bulletin board displayed each graduating senior's picture along with a dialogue from one of their teachers. What a meaningful sendoff!

A tribute from teachers to graduating seniors

Obviously, our previous understanding of PBL was not accurate. We are utilizing some parts of PBL, but we need to fill in the gaps. For example, I collaborated with a classroom teacher on a poetry and songwriting unit, where students wrote their own poems, which developed into a song. This project could easily be transformed into PBL with the addition of a driving question and a public audience. This checklist could help direct us in the right direction when revamping current projects using a PBL focus.

PBL is an exciting focus to explore in the coming year. How do you incorporate PBL? What were the best resources when you began your PBL journey? What training do you think is absolutely necessary?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Summer Reflection and Planning

As the weather is getting warmer and the to do list is growing longer, summer is right around the corner. For many teachers, summer is a hard-earned reprieve from the day-to-day routine of the school year. Some use the time to prepare for the upcoming school year, while others spend the time working supplementary jobs or volunteering.
Summer fun at the beach

I asked my students what they thought teachers do during the summer. They said that teachers
·      Sleep a lot.
·      Go on vacation.
·      Spend time with their family.
·      Have a big party and then, close the school.
·      Make people be quiet.
·      Learn about next year’s students.
·      Get ready for the next school year.

While I’m sure that teachers do most of those things, one activity the students failed to mention was reflecting on the past year’s successes and failures. When I look back over the past year, I ask myself the following questions based on a list posted on Dr. Troy Roddy’s educational leadership blog, The Art of Education.
  1. What were my goals for this year? Did I accomplish my goals? If so, how do I know? If not, why?
  2. What were my best lessons this year? How do I know?
  3. What were the lessons that were the biggest disappointments? Why?
  4. Is my classroom set up to facilitate the type of class I want to teach?
  5. What feedback did I collect from students about their learning experience?
  6. Did I grow as a professional this year?  If so, in what areas?  If not, why?
  7. If I could do one thing over again, what would it be and why?
The answers to these questions naturally lead to thoughts on how I can improve my performance and have a more significant impact on student learning in the upcoming school year. I ask myself the following questions when developing my goals and plan for accomplishing those goals:
  1. How will I turn this year’s reflections into action? How can I repeat my successes and transform disappointments into celebrations?
  2. How will I encourage collaborative problem solving?
  3. How will I develop leadership skills in students?
  4. How will I further incorporate technology to impact student learning?
  5. How will I become a better leader in my school and professional organizations?
  6. What areas do I need to focus on for professional development? What opportunities are available in those areas?
  7. What resources or support do I need to accomplish my goals?
John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Don’t let the summer pass by without reflecting on how you can improve your teaching skills and have a more profound impact on student learning.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Why Do You Want to Become a School Leader?

One of the most common questions during assistant principal interviews is "why do you want to become a school leader?" I've spent a lot of time pondering my answer and have found it difficult to put into words why I feel drawn to school leadership.

So, I thought about why I decided to become a teacher in the first place. The following is an excerpt from an essay about the factors that influenced me to become a teacher:
Gramps playing my wedding waltz

As I spun around the dance floor with my new husband, I glanced around the room through the crowd of family, friends, mentors, and teachers. My eyes and ears fixated on the soundtrack performed by Dad and Gramps. As the waltz played, I realized that these two men, who surrounded me with a lifetime of love and support, led me to discover my passion of music and my life’s purpose of teaching it to others. They shaped me into who I am and created in me a passion to lead others to the joy of music.  
Gramps was a thoughtful person, who was always willing to give. He served our country during World War II and spent his career with U.S. Steel. However, his lifelong passion was music. He could sing, play any instrument, and call square dances. Gramps made music an essential part of family life and encouraged Dad to experiment with all types of instruments. The banjo is what stuck. After learning a new technique in his lesson, my dad would run home, teach Gramps, and they would play into the night. As my own musical passion flourished, Gramps attended my performances, from school holiday programs to halftime shows in the sweltering heat. Gramps was always encouraging me to not only pursue my passion, but to use my talents to lead others. When he was no longer able to play, Gramps still surrounded himself with music by listening to and discussing music. Even in death, his passion for music is a model of leadership. Interlaced in his papers regarding funeral arrangements were two aged newspaper clippings discussing the honor of having “Taps” sounded at the funerals of veterans. Gramps was granted his final musical aspiration when one of my father’s longtime friends played “Taps” at his burial. 
Dad's induction into the
Alabama Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame
Gramps’s musical passion continues to thrive through my father’s talent, skill, and leadership in the bluegrass community. Dad was recently inducted into the Alabama Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame for his guidance in instilling musical passion in others. His ownership of a local music store, musical prowess in performances, and teaching of banjo and guitar has inspired thousands to develop a love of bluegrass music. 
I'm "helping" Dad practice
My family’s engagement in my education is the main factor that influenced me to become a teacher. Through Dad and Gramps, I discovered a passion for music and I am honored to share this legacy with my students. The joy I experienced in my childhood continues to shape my teaching. Students sing, play instruments, move, improvise songs, create compositions using technology, and lead others to learn about music. They utilize music as a tool to learn about other subject areas and unlock their hidden talents. It is my goal to continually show my unwavering passion for music and be a “Gramps” to my students by introducing them to the incredible world of music, the thrill of learning, and their lifelong purpose.

Once I revisited my reasoning for becoming a teacher, I realized that I feel drawn to school leadership for the same purpose. I aspire to follow in Gramps's footsteps by leading others to find their passion. That could be inspiring students to realize their purpose and become leaders in their area of talent. Or, I could assist a teacher in utilizing data to impact student achievement. As a school leader, I have the opportunity to impact school culture at a more profound level than I could as a teacher.

What inspired you to pursue school leadership?