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Friday, October 29, 2010

A "Natural" Idea

I had the pleasure of touring a very interesting local start-up company in Green Island. It's a great example of how a small company can create BIG ideas that make a difference. That concept attracted my interest, since I envision Heatly School distinguishing itself someday as a small school with BIG ideas, and led to a call for information and an interest in learning more about the firm. I also had hope that they might provide a product that would be a much more eco-firendly substitute for the foam trays we use in our food service program. While they do not yet furnish such a replacement, they are manufacturing literally growing an innovative and award winning company that has recently been featured in Time magazine, Popular Science magazine, and even served as a clue in a murder case on the hit television show, CSI: New York.

Ecovative Design is the brainchild to two young graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a renown research university located just across the Hudson River in Troy. In addition to receiving their undergraduate degrees, both of the company founders experienced the benefits of the innovation and entrepreneurship program at RPI that seeks to incubate ideas. The pair of men examined the way mushrooms were growing on wood chips and actually bonding the wood chips together. They imagined other potential uses of the resin-like substance that bonded the wood chips. Their persistent experimenting eventually yielded results and a product line that makes a difference, and makes a profit - all without negatively impacting the environment. The process combines mushroom roots and seed husks to produce packaging that protects items being shipped and transported. One of the primary clients thus far has been a noted international company that ships office furniture. The Ecovative packaging is an alternative to the traditional white foam inserted into the corners of shipping boxes. It requires far less energy and uses natural ingredients. It is also bio-degradable and can be composted in your backyard.

I hope Ecovative Deisgn continues to grow, expands its product line, makes a difference, enjoys success - and remains in Green Island. It was very interesting to learn about the product and view the process, but of even more intriguing was the manner in which the idea evolved, took shape, and took off! The success of the company offers a powerful lesson to individuals and small organizations that exercise imagination and explore innovation. It can be done, and in fact many enduring inventions started small and achieved success through persistence, experimentation, and determination. Michelangelo once explained that success often emerges from the point an individual reverses his or her perspective from the skeptical, "I'll believe it when I see it," to the optimistic, "I'll see it when I believe it." We're starting to believe it at Heatly. We're off the list of Schools In Need of Improvement and ready to advance to new opportunities and promising possibilities.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Treats And No Tricks

Today was an extremely busy day full of meetings and deadlines. However, the best part of the day was the small amount of time I carved out of my schedule to attend a Halloween party in the gymnasium after school for the children in Kindergarten, First, and Second grades.

Beyond the fun that the young children experienced as they were involved in a variety of activities - dancing, doing the limbo, face painting, costume contests, and much more - was the great feeling I had watching the high school learners organize and supervise the event. Their advisor was there and she certainly played an active role in coordinating the revelry and served as a tremendous resource, but the sight of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders donating their time and energy to provide a wonderful party for their far younger classmates reaffirmed one of the prime reasons I wanted to work in Green Island. Relationships really count here.The intervention of the older learners was sincere and engaging. It was very gratifying to observe. It was clear that the older learners were not simply going through the motions to gain community service credit for their organization or to enhance their college applications. Instead, their motive was more altruistic. They knew the children and clearly evidenced care and interest to ensure that the party-goers were satisfied.

That genuine connection reinforced a central tenet of our school. Care, compassion, and consideration still count, even in this age of high stakes annual assessments administered at a time when everything that can be measured is thoroughly chronicled, evaluated, interpreted, and examined beyond belief and recognition. Despite the sharp contrast between an organization devoted to relationships operating in an era of objective and sterile data analysis, the two can co-exist. As proof, we have been notified (official word is expected next week) that on the basis of successful scores on state tests over the last two years, Heatly School is no longer considered by the state education department as a School In Need of Improvement.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Determination and Perseverance = Success

This afternoon our Varsity Girls Soccer team proved resilient and eventually persevered in a close 3-2 win in the opening game of the playoff campaign. The game was exciting and featured the sustained efforts of two evenly matched squads. For the impartial soccer purist, it was a well played game that would unfortunately result in overwhelming disappointment for one side. Neither team deserved to walk off the field with a loss.

In the second half, the visitors of Sharon Springs, trailing 2-1, tied the score with an excellent series of touches that produced a beautiful goal. Clearly, that score perked up the team and secured momentum in their favor. As visitors, they came from behind to knot the contest and you could almost feel the tide shifting. Following that goal, Sharon Springs pushed forward and sustained the offensive, pressing our defenders back in a defensive posture. You could sense growing concern among the crowd supporting Heatly. Suddenly, a crisp shot from an opponent clanged off the side goal post, narrowly avoiding the lead turning to Sharon Springs. It appeared the game might slip out of the grasp of the home team.
Despite that, the Hornets of Heatly were able to bend, but not break. They absorbed the well placed passes and the barrage of shots from their opponents to regain their composure and patiently look for opportunities. Their patience and perseverance paid off when a long arching shot sailed over the outstretched hands of the goalie and found the back of the net to once again provide them with a one goal margin. Their tenacity and determination accompanied them for the remaining minutes of the game, thwarting repeated scoring attempts by Sharon Springs and and rewarding Heatly with a well earned victory.

The spirit of this soccer team reflects the same commitment to success that all members of our learning community must consistently demonstrate. They displayed teamwork, exercised both communication and cooperation, maintained an orientation toward success, and executed fundamental techniques. Those same characteristics evidenced by the soccer players will serve as an example of how we can experience victory in the classroom.

Yesterday, we received notification that our most recent results on annual state mandated assessments earned us the status of School in Good Standing. This designation represents progress. We have been mired beneath the burden of being considered a School In Need of Improvement (SINI School) according to the New York State Department of Education. While the news is welcome and perhaps even reason for a bit of celebration, we must consider it only a momentary sense of relief and another step in our journey toward excellence. Our goal has been defined as meeting our full potential as individuals and collectively as an organization, not to merely perform high enough to escape the clutches of our SINI status. Just as our soccer team won the game today, if they expect to win the playoff title they need to focus on performing at their highest possible level, not just scoring one more goal than their opponent or playing well enough to win. In both instances, on the field and in the classroom, it's a cause for a pause, to catch our breath, not a reason to stop what we're doing and shoot off fireworks. If we indulge in that, we convey the message that good enough is good enough. That's not the case if you plan to win the soccer championship or expect to reach the state's highest level of being a High Achieving - Gap Closing School. In the end, Good enough falls far short of Great.

We're on our way to Broadalbin-Perth Central School this Saturday at 1:00 for the next rung of the ladder to the soccer championship. And we're on our way to reaching new heights in the quest for excellence in learning as well.

We're off!!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Who Mentors Who?

This morning marked our fourth mentoring session (the school-wide mentoring program was first mentioned in the September 14th Blog entry entitled - (What is Staff Development Anyway?). I've been assisted in this activity by one of our high school learners. In fact, this individuals involvement has turned the experience into a very interesting opportunity. Not only has the help proved to be beneficial, but I believe the young man who generously volunteered his time is enjoying the sessions and learning from the engagement every bit as much as the seven children from Kindergarten, First, and Second grades who are the subjects of the mentoring program.

This interaction has provided the young man with a unique chance to supply help to others. I believe he has been a struggling learner himself and perhaps has not had an entirely positive perception of school. By supporting my effort to lead this mentoring group he has taken a step outside of the role he's played at school, maybe even a role where he has been typecast by classmates in a narrowly defined manner. Instead, the primary grade children in the session look up to him and extend their respect by listening to him and also seeking his attention.

It was easy to integrate him into the flow of the topic of today's mentoring session - healthy choices for the future - since he has been working hard to improve his physical conditioning by regularly jogging, watching what he eats, and rigorously exercising - all in preparation for pursuing a position in a very challenging branch of the armed services.

As he explained his eating habits and work-out routines, I noticed a glint in his eyes I hadn't seen whenever I've observed him walking in the hallways of the school. I suspect he's discovered a new and surprising purpose at school. I appreciated his initial presence at the second mentoring session and wondered whether his motive in originally volunteering was really an aversion to attending his own assigned mentoring program. But, he kept coming back. He was quiet then, but he's typically quiet in school anyway. His actions were at first infrequent, tentative and stiff. Yet each time he returned, he opened up a little more. And today, he was readily engaged and actively supportive.

I'm grateful for his contribution and proud of his genuine interest. It's been rewarding to witness this subtle transformation over the last two months, from a quiet young man not sure of himself, to someone who gives every impression of enjoying his role as an assistant helping seven young children grow. The youngsters see him as the person he wants to be seen now, not as the person who has spent thirteen years with the same classmates advancing from grade to grade and classroom to classroom (such is the weakness and the strength of a small school) to the point that the perceptions and beliefs of his peers have confined him - typecast as an actor who is limited to only playing one kind of role or genre, much like Clint Eastwood trying to act in a play by Shakespeare after so many years and roles as an action hero in Westerns.

I've learned a lot from this unique vantage point, maybe as much as the children being mentored. It's been a very rewarding part of the mentoring experience for me and I think we'll all grow from the sessions. I'm anxious to see how it continues to unfold and I'm sure it will be the subject of future Blogs.

Stay tuned.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Off To Venice, And Then To Schoharie

I'm off tomorrow to Venice, Italy and then Schoharie, New York, before returning to Green Island - all in one day!!

Thanks to a very resourceful media center specialist at Heatly and the newly purchased interactive white board, I'll be taking the 6th grade Book Club to Venice, Italy by way of Google Earth. If you read an earlier Blog post (September 10th) you'll recall that a SmartBoard is a fairly new tool of technology that "enables the teacher to project a large image of their computer screen on to a 4 foot by 6 foot screen, access web based programs, allow learners to directly engage and manipulate learning components - and more. The Smartboard detects touch and enables the learner to use their finger to perform many of the same functions as a computer mouse/cursor/keyboard – scroll, right-click. The Smartboards were purchased in an arrangement that takes advantage of an opportunity to maximize the financial aid we receive, thus reducing costs." We'll use the Google Earth application to obtain a bird's-eye view of this great Italian city during our initial meeting of the group.

Venice is the location for the book we are reading - The Thief Lord. The story takes readers along the canals of Venice and through the maze of alleyways that wind through the city. I thought it would help the Book Club members gain a better understanding of the context of the story and stimulate their imagination when reading about the exploits of the street urchins who live in the shadows of Venice, one step away from their pursuers. We will be able to swoop down upon the city and explore its many different features as if we were there, perched high above one of the many church steeples that reach toward the sky. We will be able to zoom in for close-ups and zoom out for panoramic vistas. What better way to grasp the essence of the location for the story?

Later tomorrow, I will be attending a conference in Schoharie, NY on accessing, storing, retrieving, and disaggregating test score data as a means of converting inert facts and numbers into useful information that can inform instructional design and decisions. Measuring data points on tests is one thing, exploiting technology to examine the data and translate it into strategies is another. We have to equip our staff members with information they can activate, without lumbering beneath the burden of papers or toiling away hours pouring through a pile of statistics like they were looking for a needle in a haystack.

Both of these interactions demonstrate the power of technology. Both represent opportunities to leverage success at Heatly. Both serve as reminders of how we can move forward in our quest to be a small school with BIG ideas. We have to continue to strive for any and every edge we can discover in order to pursue our goal of meeting the needs of learners at all ages, at all stages.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Show Up To Show Off

We've been focusing on improving our attendance rate among learners. If we don't "show up" we can't hope to improve our performance levels and subsequently "show off." This area of measurement was one of the points addressed during the secondary grade level assembly back on the second day of school (see Blog of  September 9, 2010 "The Scoreboard"). At that meeting, we drew attention to the fact our average daily attendance rate was below that of the other school districts we compete with in athletics. It did not go unnoticed that we also lagged behind in nearly all of the academic areas when compared with these same schools.

Soon thereafter, a number was posted throughout the school without any reference to its meaning. Then, a week later another figure was placed beneath the first number. Eventually, after hopefully arousing curiosity and attention, it was announced over the school intercom system that the posted numbers represented our average daily attendance for each of the first two weeks of the school year. We have to keep our goal in mind and also provide benchmarks to gauge our progress or lack thereof.

It's difficult to keep up with the learning program and maintain success if you miss class. Individual attendance rate may also be perceived as a reflection of one's commitment, dependability and sense of responsibility. Interestingly, these same characteristics not only combine to reveal attitude, but they also contribute a great deal to success in whatever work one may engage in later as an adult. It's an important message and a critical goal.

We'll continue to monitor the attendance rate and hope that decreasing absences will lead to a discovery that achievement levels will rise to demonstrate a positive impact on performance. Study after study reaffirms the obvious and intuitive relationship between the attendance rate of a learner and their learning rate. Comedian and movie director Woody Allen once wryly suggested that, "Eighty percent of success is just showing up." While I wouldn't claim it in such simple terms, I would agree that showing up is certainly a start in the right direction. That's where we need to go at Heatly - in the right direction. And that begins with measuring attendance and reinforcing our collective commitment to learning.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Envision Opportunity

Take a quick look at the phrase that follows and read it aloud:


How did you read it? What does it say?

Did you read it as, OPPORTUNITY IS NOWHERE
or did you read it as, OPPORTUNITY IS NOW HERE

It's interesting how we interpret words when we read real fast. There's a significant difference between the two distinct outcomes one can arrive at when reading the phrase, just like it seems there's always two sides to everything.

The perspective we have on issues is often reflective, at a conscious or unconscious level, of what we believe, what we value, and how we feel. There are numerous factors that form an intricate mosaic of our responses and views. You'll have to indulge in self-introspection to examine why you read the phrase as you did and what that interpretation might mean.

I have always tried to operate with a constructive and optimistic perspective, as opposed to adopting a skeptical or cynical outlook. Perhaps that's idealistic or naive, but I prefer it over the alternative. Therefore, I read the phrase as OPPORTUNITY IS NOW HERE rather than OPPORTUNITY IS NO WHERE. Much of my work as the superintendent of Green Island is designed to influence members of the school and community to read the future of our school in the same manner. That is, that our opportunity is in fact here and subscribing to an opinion or belief that OPPORTUNITY IS NO WHERE will not serve any of us well.

It takes time. It requires a vision with credibility that invites faith. And, it will necessitate compelling evidence to enlist people in following and committing to an adventure that requires sacrifice and resilience. But, as an old Chinese adage states, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."

One of the featured components of discussions on school improvement is "vision." What is a vision? Why do people talk about vision? Where and how do you get a vision?

A vision is an imagined and desired state. It is timeless rather than finite and terminal. Like the stars that guided ancient mariners, perhaps we will never reach them but we can certainly plot our course by them. A vision is an ideal that is constantly modified to meet changes and improvements in what we know about excellence in the teaching/learning process. In their work "Creating Excellence" authors Hickman and Silva describe vision as "a journey from the known to the unknown, creating the future from a montage of facts, figures, hopes, dreams, dangers, and opportunities."

A vision should serve as a beacon for the school community. The meaning and direction expressed in the vision provides a mental image of what "could be, and should be" such as Heatly: A small school with BIG ideas! This guide will then function as a filter that screens actions and decisions of the school by way of asking, "Does this facilitate the pursuit of the vision?"

A vision is captivating and motivating. For instance, the late Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech is a classic example of communicating a vision. When King delivered this famous address to over two hundred thousand people in Washington, D.C. the civil rights movement was galvanized. A review of King's presentation yields several essential ingredients for articulating a vision. King utilized repetition, imagery, and metaphors, in an emotional appeal to the central values and beliefs of his audience. The message was enduring, motivational, credible, energizing, and most of all, it was right. He presented followers with a more attractive future in such a fashion that they enlisted in the pursuit of the day "When we let freedom ring."

Contrast this with the light that guides many schools today. The accountability movement is so oriented toward test scores that the accepted "vision" of schools is "raise the test scores" or "let's have scores higher than school district X." This goal hardly serves as a vision worthy of the sacrifices of valuable time and sincere effort required by those involved. Where is the personal conviction? the emotion? the tug on the follower's inner feelings? And we wonder about detached constituents in and out of the school.

In an effort to craft a vision the school leader should examine the institutional history of the school for important artifacts, heroes, and legends. These symbols can be assimilated into the fabric of the vision to create context and meaning. Assuming a variety of perspectives generates multiple possibilities for the school's future. Scanning the internal and external environment for input provides added ingredients for the vision. Developing a vision is similar to the task of an architect designing a blueprint for the school. Instead of a visible, concrete structure the school leader is casting a conceptual framework; a blueprint for social architecture.

In order for the vision to work it must be clear to everyone and applicable to all members of the school staff. Furthermore, the staff members must have the ability and responsibility to make the vision happen. Feedback and reward systems should reinforce the vision. The school leaders must live and preach the vision daily.

The following story (taken from "Bert and I", a comical record of Down East Maine humor by Robert Bryan and Marshall Dodge) can be used as an example of how a school operates when it lacks a crystallized vision for the members of its community.

It seems that Bert and his partner were out in their boat in quest for lobster. A dense fog rolled in and enveloped their craft. Without a fathometer to determine the depth of the water they could not tell when they were approaching land. The absence of radar dealt them another navigational hazard.

Bert went to the bow of the vessel and reached into a sack of potatoes. He threw a potato into the fog as far and as straight as he could. If he heard a splash he directed his shipmate to maintain the course. If he didn't hear a splash he quickly yelled "Right!" or "Left!"

If our school practices that same sense of direction, proceeding in a fog of issues and challenges without anything to guide our efforts we will be leading the learners on an irresponsible detour to their future. An entire staff relying on the arm strength of the school leader throwing the educational equivalent of potatoes and anxiously waiting to sharply veer the direction of the school to the right or left at a moments notice will likely fall well below expected performance levels. We must make sure that the members of our school community are pursuing a common path toward an accepted vision instead of participating in a parade of the blind leading the blind.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Data Disorientation

"We use data like a drunk uses a lamp post - for support, not illumination"  Robert Waterman, The Renewal Factor

Public schools, particularly in New York, where the state has been awarded $700,000,000 as a recipient of the federally funded competitive grant entitled Race To The Top, have recently embarked on yet another crusade, this one fueled and governed by data. I will be attending a conference this Friday devoted to topics emerging from the expectations and requirements of schools with respect to Race To The Top. My skepticism is not simply generated by the fact that our school will only receive $3,800 per year for each of the next four years to reach the standards enumerated in this program. Rather, my anxiety evolves from the fear that this is another well intended but misguided effort destined to fall short of its goal.

The campaign is predicated on a concern arising from a reservoir of statistics used as performance gauges. Who can argue with the objectivity and impartiality of numbers? While the sanctity of the arithmetic may not be questioned, the application and interpretation of the calculations should be the subject of critical examination. This contention hearkens back to another quote that has appeared in previous Blogs – “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts” (George Pickering).

Years ago, a professor of statistics and probability once informed me that, “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.” I’m not suggesting that educational reformers are unethical or dishonorable. Neither are they lacking in concern or commitment. They want to improve education, and that’s certainly a noble goal shared by all, but good intentions and sheer will-power are not enough to ensure success in any venture.

Technology now allows us to store, access, and analyze an unprecedented and incredible amount of data with extreme speed and efficient accuracy. However, the fact that we can analyze learners by shoe size, address, hand dominance, eye color, intelligence quotient, height, or any imaginable amount of measurables in addition to academic achievement does not necessarily promote our progress toward increasing performance levels. If you don’t know where you’re going, a faster car only gets you lost faster!

This motivation to move forward resembles the same compelling fervor that prompted the explosive increase in Math and Science courses in American public schools following the Russian’s launch of the first earth-orbiting satellite in 1957, or the surge in reports of research in Reading and the development of Reading programs after the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk.  

Much has been said about the collection and interpretation of data in schools. Yet, it’s quite interesting that some of the most thought provoking statements that could be applied to the use of data in education relate to being drunk. The message included in this Blog addresses the problems of being intoxicated by data. This condition can be remedied by re-examining how we identify and interpret data.

Schools need to be driven by a mission communicated in language that inspires people to pursue a commonly held vision of success associated with teaching and learning. Data should therefore be utilized to illuminate the route to the desired vision. The inability to clearly agree upon a mission results in acting on data that may not be directly related to the school's real purpose. Schools often act like the drunk portrayed in the following story.

One night on my way home I spotted a drunken man on his hands and knees crawling around in the area beneath a street light.
"I lost my keys, can you help me?" he asked.
"Sure," I replied, "did you lose them around here?"
"No" he said.
“Where did you last remember having your keys?” I inquired.
“Over there,” he stated as he pointed to a building over 100 feet away, "I lost them over there by that old building."
I was puzzled by his response, so I asked him, "Then why are you searching under this street light?" "Well," the drunk said, "there isn't any light over there."

The keys we are searching for are the keys to effectiveness in schools. And we won't find them looking in the dark. Light must be shed upon the meaning and purpose of schools so an appropriate data base can be developed to create benchmarks along our journey, much like the mile markers beside long stretches of highway that inform drivers of their progress.

The first step in constructing an appropriate database is crafting a mission related to an accepted vision. This beacon will allow us to differentiate between necessary data and confusing, inconsequential data that may be interesting but not critical in leveraging success. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once remarked about the excessive data confronting his department, "There's such a flood of information, it's like drinking out of a fire hose."

In their book, Reinventing Government, authors Osborne and Gaebler state: "Most reporting systems don't reveal opportunities, they report problems." Problems make for headlines and soundbites that attract sales of newspapers or ratings on television, but they can cloud our vision every bit as much as clarify our focus. Robert Waterman encourages readers of his book, The Renewal Factor, to “look for a difference in data that makes a difference.” To improve schools we must seek opportunities rather than focus on problems. This is analogous to the expression, "We need to play to win instead of playing not to lose." There is a big difference. One plan is action oriented and assertive while the other is reactive and defensive.

Step two, therefore, is to collect data by exploring opportunities as vehicles to transport the school toward the vision. For purposes of exploration, use a kaleidoscope to examine new and changing patterns, and a telescope to search distant opportunities, instead of a microscope that focuses upon minutiae. Look outside the traditional parameters we impose upon ourselves when engaged in school improvement efforts. Ask yourself – What really counts?

Unshackling the blinders that conspire to limit our opportunities can be productive. For example, a recent study conducted by John Jewkes and reported by Roy Rowan in his book, The Intuitive Manager, reveals that of 58 major twentieth century inventions (defined by their impact upon the daily lives of people), 46 of these discoveries were produced by an individual, a small firm, or somebody in the "wrong business." King Gillette was a cork salesman when he came up with the safety razor. George Eastman was a bookkeeper who changed the nature of photography. Two musicians invented Kodachrome. A veterinarian, John Dunlop, was the co-inventor of the pneumatic tire. An undertaker devised the automatic dialing system. A watchmaker seeking a solution to a brass fitting problem developed the concept of continuous casting steel.

Step three involves interpreting the data. Look for leverage points where inert data can be converted into user-friendly information that can be applied by practitioners as solutions. This technique must observe dissonant information as well as supportive data. Avoid the fate of the frog that was boiled. If you place a frog into hot water it will leap out, the same response that extremely cold water would provoke. However, if you place the frog in a pot of water that approximates the temperature of it's pond water you can then gradually heat up the water to the boiling point without the frog noticing the imperceptible change in temperature. Another view on data interpretation uses the example of a double loop feedback system. A thermostat is a typical single loop system. You set the gauge for the desired temperature, much like you establish goals for the school. Although the thermostat can direct the furnace to respond to a change in temperature it can not answer the question "Do we still want this same temperature three hours from now?" Constant interpretation of data will respond to the question, "Are we still on the right track?"

School improvement should not drive you to drink. By following the three suggestions indicated above you will be less likely to become data drunk: 1.) identify appropriate data, 2.) seek opportunistic data, and 3.) constantly interpret the data. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Key People and Key Ideas

Our school district is small in terms of enrollment. We accept that reality and seek to exploit the potential benefits of our size by accentuating the value of relationships, cooperation, and collaboration. But, we also have a desire to be big, in terms of opportunities and possibilities. Thus, our goal of being a small school with BIG ideas!

In order for us to successfully reach that objective, we must nurture and encourage the contributions of all members of our learning community. In that sense, leadership is situational and distributed throughout the system, depending on skill, experience, and knowledge. Ideas can emerge from a variety of sources and must be respected as potential breakthroughs. Exploration and calculated risk taking are seen as worthy efforts in expanding our horizons. Influence becomes a commodity greater than power. What is right triumphs who is right. 

Such a perspective requires everyone to be perceived as essential. We need everyone to feel like a key person. Individuals count, and they can make a difference. Read the following passage and see that even though one person surrendering to a belief that they are not important may not prevent a message or movement from being successful, such a belief does lessen the rate and reach of success for the organization.







Now, read the next passage below and find out how organizations, like schools, may miss opportunities for success in conveying their message and meaning because they get bogged down in details and neglect potential solutions and possibilities.

Subject: Typoglycemia
I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg

The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mind.  Aoccdrnig to  rscheearch at

Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a

wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be

in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed

it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey

lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? Yaeh, and I

awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt.

Please note, I am not dismissing the importance of spelling in this example. Instead, the point of this exercise was to realize that breakthrough ideas are often discounted or rejected because they don't conform to our current beliefs or they are unfairly scrutinized for lacking convention. Brainstorming without imposing judgement or opinions is likely to produce an increase in prospective solutions to perplexing issues, or at least lead to an eventual breakthrough.

See the final passage in this Blog for examples of people who had "bad" ideas that were either accidental discoveries or mistakes but eventually converted into successes. This listing of "Bad Ideas" is courtesy of Jack Foster, author of How to Get Ideas.


Madame Curie had a ‘bad’ idea that turned out to be radium.

Richard Drew had a ‘bad’ idea that turned out to be Scotch tape.

Vulcanized rubber was discovered by accident by Goodyear – so was antiknock gasoline by Kettering – so was immunology by Pasteur – so were x-rays by Roentgen – so was the telescope by Lippershey – so was radioactivity by Becquerel – so was penicillin by Fleming – so was America by Columbus.

The moral? Never cry over spilled milk. Find a use for it – or invent a better milk carton.

Jack Foster
How to Get Ideas

Monday, October 18, 2010

No Man Is An Island

Late last week I enjoyed the opportunity to serve as the mystery reader for the children in a primary grade classroom. The teacher selected three or four different books for me to choose from as the day approached. I picked A Time of Wonder, written by award winning author Robert McCloskey. You might be familiar with some of McCloskey's other notable works: Make Way for Ducklings; Blueberries for Sal; and Homer Price and the Doughnut Factory, among others. He spent a large portion of his adult life on the largest island in Maine - Deer Isle, home to about 2,500 year round residents. He died there in 2003 at the age of 88.

I started my educational career on that same island thirty-five years ago, teaching 32 fifth graders at Stonington Elementary School (165 learners in grades K-6). Interestingly, the teacher who invited me to be the mystery reader enjoyed many childhood summer vacations on that same island nestled in the Penobscot Bay of Maine. I reflected on the symbolism of reading one of Robert McCloskey's books in a classroom at Green Island after all these years removed from that island in Maine.

While hunting for my first apartment as a newly married, freshly graduated, first year teacher, I stumbled upon Robert McCloskey. I answered an ad listing an apartment available above a storefront. The little store offered many different items appealing to tourists. Yet, oddly enough amid all the trinkets there was a nice collection of children's books, each from the same author, Robert McClosky. I explained I was a new teacher on the island and asked the store owner about her unusual preoccupation with a singular writer and she exclaimed that the author lived nearby and in fact had just left the store. No sooner did she finish her sentence then she rushed outside, called down the street and beckoned the return of Mr. McCloskey. I don't recall what exactly, or even vaguely, that I said during our brief introduction, such was my surprise at the unanticipated meeting with a famous writer of children's books. Nonetheless, he remains one of my favorite storytellers, in large part because his work has earned him several national awards, and in small part because I can actually say I met him!

Yet, here I was, sitting in Green Island before a class of elementary children, much nearer the ending of a lengthy career than the beginning or even the middle, trying to entice their interest and gain their attention in a book written by someone resurrecting memories of my humble start as an educator all those years ago on that island in Maine. It's an intriguing full circle that left me in my own Time of Wonder, as I thought back on the many challenges and opportunities, the different experiences and lessons, and the various interactions and endeavors through the years spent in between these two islands.

I never would have imagined the odyssey that started on an island off the coast of Maine and ends on an "island" in New York. Though the village of Green Island is no longer surrounded by water in the form of the South Branch of the Mohawk River Delta, the home of approximately 2,300 people is nonetheless an island anyway - with commerce and industry as borders on the north and south, the venerable Hudson River to the east, and interstate 787, constructed in the 1960's by filling in the branch of the river, forming a wall to the west. This results in a small school district with the dense population of a city. It's an interesting combination of simultaneously having elements of being both big and small.

In between these two points of my career, and representing a pair of bookends to the journey, I worked in yet another island, this one much, much larger. It was a large city school district with over 30,000 learners in grades K-12 situated in the middle of the vast and otherwise vacant golden plains of the Texas Panhandle. The city of Amarillo, Texas (200,000 inhabitants) might as well be an island. It is not encircled by the suburbs that typically surround a city of this size in most of the country. Instead, it stands virtually alone, with nothing but huge tracts of arid, desert-like land bereft of anything but a few tiny towns here and there (with the exception of Canyon, Texas, home of West Texas A&M University, 15 miles away) dotting the map for miles and miles around. It is a very different island, with very different experiences than you could find in either Deer Isle or Green Island. The seven years I served as a school leader in that system posed unique challenges and opportunities that enhanced my professional growth and training.

I guess I have become the sum of those disparate experiences and the beneficiary of those same experiences. Despite the interesting twists and turns that have formed the path of that exploration, I've enjoyed the people I've met along the way and I've grown from the opportunities to learn from others. After all, no man is an island!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Catching Up

Time to catch up on events and activities of the week.

I spent time this afternoon with an architect representing the firm we have contracted with to conduct a state mandated inspection of the school building that must be performed every five years. During the course of a discussion on the scope of the project we found ourselves in a conversation on the parallels between an architect creating a vision of a building emerging in it's entirety from a vacant field, and a school leader articulating a credible and compelling view of a desired future. Both paths emanate from a simple credo underlying the foundation of architecture: "form follows function." In other words, the operation of the school must evolve out of the purpose of the school, rather than the purpose of the school growing out of the operation of the school. It's an important reminder. I enjoyed an engaging exchange of ideas and experiences and look forward to our work together.

Now, let's look at that relationship of form following function. Our efforts at school are fueled by our reason for being - our focus on success in learning at all ages and all stages.

A return visit to the sixth grade classroom working on mummifying chickens (see posting of last Friday, October 8th) revealed that the work of the class members had progressed nicely. The chickens, secured in a large air-tight plastic bag after being stuffed with salt and engulfed by baking soda, had indeed transformed from a soft fleshy, fresh chicken to a hardened (odorous) corpse with the prospect of remaining in that condition for some time. Other than the smell, the learners were impressed with their cooperative efforts and gained a much clearer understanding of an important aspect of the culture of the ancient civilization they are studying.

Our Librarian has discovered a source which will loan us twenty copies of The Thief Lord (by Cornelia Funke) so we can soon begin the first subject of our new Book Club. We'll meet once a week and discuss the plot and characters of the novel, while also examining motives, drawing inferences and projecting outcomes. Eventually, we'll compare and contrast the novel with Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. I am excited about the opportunity to work directly with the boys and girls who volunteered for the group and anxious to model a desired learning behavior - reading!

I met with several members of one of our high school grades in my office at the end of the school day this afternoon. I have accepted the responsibility of personally monitoring their progress and promoting their success as a special project this year because I believe they represent a crucial element in our overall improvement at Heatly. They are immersed in high school and the credit bearing classes that lead toward graduation. They need a promising path for that journey. They are a collective leverage point for creating momentum for success.
Following my remarks to all of the assembled learners in grades 7-12 in the gymnasium on the second day of school, (reference the Blog of September 9th, The Scoreboard) I met with the members of this particular grade to bring attention and clarity to their important role in our future plans. I have met with them as individuals several times since then, and last Friday and this Friday as a group. Each learner is expected to "stand and deliver" by responding to several questions - How many of you have had detentions this week? How many of you have missed school this week? What success have you experienced this week? What have you done this week to improve yourself? What have you done this week to improve our school? In short, the responses this week were forthcoming and very pleasing. It's a nice start, but it will require work, from them and from me, to maintain progress. I am optimistic - and proud of their efforts this week!

Losing my head - but not my mind. In case you've heard hat some kids had lunch with the new superintendent and claim he "lost his head!" - I'll explain so you don't think I've already lost my mind...
During separate lunches this week with first graders and fourth graders, I performed a trick in which I placed a box over my head and then opened a door at the front of the box that allowed the children to look entirely through the box and see what was in view behind the box. There was no head in sight!! This left the small audience perplexed and more than a little curious. Although I did not let them in on the illusion, we did have an entertaining dialogue on multiple areas of interest of elementary age learners. I now know more than I ever wanted to know (and probably more than anyone else my age cares to know) about Justin Bieber, Sponge Bob Square Pants, and the vilification of vegetables of all colors and taste. But, I got to know a lot more about the names and stories behind the faces of these youngsters. It's the start of a relationship, and ultimately, that's what our school is all about - relationships between and among the members of our learning community.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reflective Nesters and Aggressive Testers

The school district's Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) met last evening in their first meeting of the school year. They are an extremely helpful group comprised of caring parents with the goal of making a  positive difference in the future of the members of our learning community. I encourage all parents of Green Island to become active participants in the efforts of this fine organization.

Among the various topics they addressed as they moved through their agenda were two that particularly attracted a closer examination - recess and the fine arts. The absence of a playground, together with an apparent misunderstanding of the parameters of recess, has left the children without regular opportunities to enjoy recess. The only available area adjacent to the school is a fenced in vacant field that is used for athletic practices. Placing any playground equipment in it deprives sports teams of using the field and would prevent us from offering options for our athletic teams.

Also, there has been a mistaken impression among the elementary teachers here that recess can only be offered if a certified physical education teacher supervises the activity. Actually, whomever explained this, or however the explanation might have been misinterpreted, left the elementary teachers with a misguided belief. The only reason that the intervention of a physical education teacher would be required for recess is if the school wanted to use recess as a means of supplementing any shortcomings involved with meeting the state education department guidelines mandating 120 minutes per week of physical education. In that case, elementary teachers could follow lesson plans approved by the physical education teacher to implement activities designed to fulfill the time requirements. However, Green Island already meets that requirement through regularly scheduled physical education classes. Therefore, teachers can take children outdoors for recess an its many forms. Recess often produces activities that promote caring and sharing, fair play and sportsmanship, cooperation and competition, and many other skills or experiences that promote life-long benefits.

Interestingly physical education and the fine arts are too often victimized by school budget cuts precipitated by difficult economic constraints. In large part, the driving factors in determining the values of subjects when money is insufficient to sustain all programs are related to the absence of standardized tests in physical education and the fine arts that are commonly used to measure learner achievement. That very fact implies varying degrees of worth among disciplines with regard to associated assessment instruments.

I would argue that physical education (particularly at a time our society is grappling with an increase of children experiencing rather significant weight problems) and the fine arts (an arena fertile with opportunities to exercise problem solving and other higher order thinking skills) are extremely valuable in encouraging expanded learning opportunities for children.

I'm pleased to say that our discussion at the meeting reaffirmed the value of recess and the fine arts. We explored options that resulted in a desire to fund the purchase of many different items for use during recess - hoola hoops, frisbees, kickballs, bocce, nerf balls, rubber horseshoes, and many more games and playthings. These items can be distributed and then collected so children can enjoy recess without permanent playground equipment and return to class, leaving the field available for after school athletic practices. Also, the PTO is actively supporting the school's effort to promote and expand the fledgling elementary chorus that last year secured a bronze rating in regional music competition in their first year of competition.

This line of thinking has caused me to resurrect an essay I wrote that was published several years ago by the Capital Area School Development Association. Here it is:

Reflective Nesters and Aggressive Testers

The image of jet airliners smashing into the towers of the World Trade Center on that fateful September morning has been indelibly embedded into the conscience of America. We now realize there was so much more that collapsed that day than the steel, concrete and glass structures that entombed countless people. Our idyllic sense of invulnerability also buckled. No foreign power had ever struck and incurred the number of fatalities upon our soil in one day.

In the years prior to that horrible event, one could sit ensconced in their easy chair and occasionally hear of American casualties from distant lands too difficult to pronounce with the same mild surprise we have when learning of the death of a very ill elderly person. This was different however. It was here, and it was as unexpected as the death of a youngster. The planes penetrated our collective psyche every bit as much as they did the walls of the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon. The tragedy prompted many of us to review our personal priorities as we came face to face with the reality that our homeland was not immune to acts of terrorism.

One afternoon, approximately seven months after That Day, I listened to the public radio broadcast of a National Press Association luncheon. The guest speaker was an executive with the American Stock Exchange. Along with the outpouring of statistics, the fearless economic forecasts, and the rally for regulatory policies to thwart another debacle like Enron, the speaker indulged in a bit of self disclosure and volunteered that his life was altered on September 11th. The distance between the Trade Center and the AMEX building was measured in yards. Suddenly, there were many buildings and organizations in the economic nerve center of the country that listed their addresses as “Ground Zero.”

The presenter proudly admitted that he had changed his work habits and hours in the months since the tragedy. He was no longer routinely leaving his house at and returning home between and . He was re-evaluating his purpose, his meaning, his values… As well he should, since his family clearly did not have many opportunities to interact with him while he maintained such lengthy work days. He is to be commended for recognizing the imbalance that evidently existed in the manner in which he spent the precious, non renewable resource of time. Perhaps he understood the call of that adage, “Make sure when you climb to the top of the ladder that it’s leaning against the right wall.” We would all benefit if that clarion proved as tempting and alluring as the Sirens of the Titans in Greek mythology.

He is just one of many who have paused in the wake of the terrorist acts to reflect on their mortality, their individual legacy, and their sense of being and worth. The net effect has been for people to take a deep breath and examine whether they are making a living or making a life, and, more importantly, understanding the difference.

Sociologists now categorize this return to the home/family as “nesting.”  The “hunker down with family, stay close to home” trend has been so sweeping in nature that it has negatively impacted the economy. Families are playing board games, taking less distant vacations, and enjoying more meals at home. They appear less likely to exercise their discretionary time and spending habits in the form of dining out, attending the cinema, or visiting Mickey Mouse.

It is ironic that many of these people, sparked by an epiphany and induced by introspection to anxiously discover a life worth living, are among those who vigorously wave the banners and loudly herald the trumpets for increased standards and higher test scores in schools across the land. Children as young as six years old labor each day to meet ever rising expectations and superfluous benchmarks that are irrelevant to them – without relief or appropriate perspective accorded by the “reflective nesters.”

Wouldn’t it be appropriate now to question the manner in which children spend their time at school in the same vein that their parents have reviewed the use of time at home? Shouldn’t we examine the priorities collectively pressed by a demanding public upon our schools in the wake of this tragedy? Why is it accepted, even considered commendable, for adults to boast of rearranging their personal goals and values while imposing a stressful and nearly overwhelming level of expectation and academic rigor thrust on our youth at the untold expense of their emotional, social, and psychological development?

It appears a bit inconsistent and hypocritical. The twisted logic of one who believes problems are measured by their distance from the person assessing it. We have perhaps all been exposed to the selfish and myopic “not in my back yard” perspective. It is reluctantly tolerable to accommodate a waste management plant or nuclear reactor in a nearby town in unknown environs within our county, totally unacceptable for the same business to locate in our town, and absolutely unthinkable for it to plop down in our own neighborhood. 

Schools could benefit by shifting from a testing attitude to a nesting attitude. A mission oriented community based on a philosophy anchored on how children learn and develop, within an environment that cultivates potential and promotes effective and productive relationships. A school where the adults nurture the hope and feed the dreams of children and provide them the skills and experiences to reach individually desired destinations.

In closing, we should take note of the research findings of Collins and Porras (Built to Last, 1994) who state:

      A central characteristic of corporations
       that achieved outstanding, long-term
       success was a core ideology emphasizing
      ‘more than profits.’” (p.48)

It would be wise for policy makers and school leaders to recognize the significance of the contention that -  
      companies that emphasize values beyond the
       bottom line were more profitable in the
      long run than companies who stated their
      goals in  purely financial terms.” (p.48)

If we think in terms of testing results which are often misconstrued as the “bottom line” or as “profits” then we should reconsider our frame of reference. We should focus instead on an operational definition of schools around values of character, communication, community, and consideration to redirect us toward long term success and a prosperous future. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Soup to Nuts

This Blog entry is unlikely to excite anyone or generate a great deal of interest in the flash and splash of education, but it does offer a close-up of what I personally believe about education. I am offering my individual philosophy on education for your review and critique. Following that, I have provided an outline of essential characteristics of an ideal school/district. Together they form a map for the future of our district.

Personal Philosophy of Education

The following clarification of my perspective on education is borne of the many years I have spent in schools since age five; as a learner, teacher, and school leader.

The essence of education ultimately resides within the personal interaction between teacher and learner, with those two roles defined in the broadest sense, no matter the setting, the amount of time allocated, or the type of materials, equipment, and technology utilized. As such, this dynamic emphasizes interpersonal communication skills and relationship management as the fundamental resources in the teaching and learning process. Someone once stated, “People don’t care about what you know until they know that you care.” That adage generally describes how I approach the challenge of education.  

The chief role and responsibility of the superintendent is to articulate and sustain a coherent and compelling vision attendant to the mission of the district. Alan Kay, of Apple Computer, sums it up best with his statement, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” A credible vision that embraces the interests and nurtures the hopes of all constituents serves as the compass for the school system. The superintendent communicates expectations, provides direction and subsequent feedback, and facilitates the collective efforts of the school-community. The superintendent is responsible for defining desired outcomes, while orchestrating the processes necessary to achieve stated goals.

Educational researcher William Spady claims that, “All children can learn, just not in the same way or on the same day.” I would contend that the same assertion should be applied to all learners, regardless of age. If a school district expects to reach its potential, it will require the coordinated efforts of all staff members. This belief warrants a commitment to promoting growth, not just among those between ages five and eighteen, but all those involved as active participants in the education process. Productive contributions increase within an organizational culture that promotes respect for the individual, expects success, sustains hope and nurtures dreams, fosters collaboration, and values a caring and compassionate climate.
What Will It Look Like When We Get There:

How would one describe the ideal school system? The following characteristics will serve as indicators:

A School:

... with an operational philosophy constructed around the way children learn and the manner in which people interact effectively;

... where energy and effort are supportive of a mission that focuses upon cultivating success in all learners, nurturing individual responsibility, and human development;

... that employs a decision making matrix consistently involving the mission, data base, desired outcomes, and continual feedback;

... guided by applied and empirical research;

... cognizant of its relationship with internal and external components of a holistic satellite ( practices, processes, expectations, interests, organizational structures and resulting networks);

More specifically -

a. leadership is appropriately extended throughout the
   organization and not held hostage by a title or office,
b. reciprocal relationship exists between leaders and
c. leaders develop human resources and capabilities,
d. leaders display commitment and consistency toward
   organizational goals,
e. collaboration, collegiality, entrepreneurship, and risk
   taking are fostered,
f. leaders model life long learning
g. leadership is situational, but focused around the

Staff Development:
a. ongoing
b. all staff are valuable
c. sensitive and responsive to both individual and
   organizational goals
d. training precedes application of new skills
e. understands characteristics of adult learning
f. reward system
g. assessment
h. growth oriented not deficit oriented
i. recognizes sociology of teaching

a. reciprocal and honest
b. vital to maintain healthy environment
c. solicited
d. variety of means
e. active listening is crucial
f. research on small group dynamics

Problem Solving:
a. systematic
b. involve those associated with problem
c. must pass through filter
d. support mission

Resource Management:
a. support and facilitate mission
b. based on data
c. allocated in manner which makes a difference
d. appropriated according to rational decision making
   process as close to the learner as possible, based on
   relevance and expertise
e. equitable distribution according to needs of learners
f. efficient and effective

a. emerges from values, goals and mission
b. requires participation and collaboration
c. Concerns Based Adoption Model to ease people through the
d. Systematic
   1. goal clarity
   2. re-educate, renorm community
   3. establish healthy organization
   4. process oriented
   5. continually assess process and modify when needed
   6. change agent - disrupt equilibrium
   7. organizations are interdependent - change in one part
      impacts other areas as well

a. assumes mutual and reciprocal relationship between people
   and organization
b. climate is the observable behavior, attitudes and
   feelings evolving from interaction among members of
c. individuals must accept responsibility for climate
d. climate is larger than morale, also including student
   achievement and staff effectiveness

a. the way of life
b. values, informal standards, accepted norms
c. individual or group response to cope with organization
d. can be altered by deliberate leader interventions

Desired Learner Outcomes:
a. self esteem as learner and person
b. cognitive levels
c. process skills (problem solving, communication, decision
   making, accountability, group process)
d. self directed learner
e. concern for others

Instructional Process:
a. all learners can learn
b. learners are encouraged and supported
c. instruction is systematic and reflects the best research
   and practices
d. recognizes time as a variable
e. staff flexibility and collegial relationships
f. basis for staff development
g. components within process are altered to increase success

Curriculum Organization:
a. school specifies and defines expectations of desired
   learner outcomes
b. learning is arranged in increasing levels of difficulty
   and complexity
c. curriculum and instruction are aligned with clear
   relationship between what will be learned, how it will be
   learned, and what will be measured.
d. curriculum are vehicles through which teachers nourish
   desired learner exit behaviors.

School Practices:
a. learners are placed at the point their prior learning end and new learning begins
b. movement through the curriculum is achievement driven based on demonstrated learner achievement
c. learner mastery of desired learning objectives is certified

Classroom Practices:
a. standard, mutually agreed upon
   1. marks and grading
   2. testing
   3. retesting
   4. incompletes for those who do not meet minimum
   5. learner discipline and conduct
   6. exceptional learners
   7. attendance
   8. prerequisites
   9. learner - instructor relations

Characteristics of Adult Learners:
a. change = unlearning established patterns of thinking and
b. strong needs to accomplish their own learning goals in an
   atmosphere of cooperation
c. need immediate relevance to their personal or work life
d. make decisions about their learning experiences
e. direct application is a planned, deliberate outcome with
   opportunities for practice
f. trusting, safe environment for risk taking
g. collegial support groups for processing and rehearsing
   new skills.

a. School Board commits to mission and vision of the 
b. School Board establishes district policy with guidance  
   from superintendent
1.  policies are consistent with appropriate laws and periodically reviewed and updated
c. School Board empowers the superintendent to administer
   district policies
d. School Board members receive training and support  
   necessary to successfully perform duties and meet
   challenges of governing the system