Monthly Archives: December 2009

MORE THAN JUST THESE THINGS, OUR LIVES CHANGE WITHOUT HAIKU- LOST IS HUMAN TOUCH

The Huffington Post includes a list of 12 common items that have become obsolete this decade. Check ’em out.  If newspapers, and landline phones, and calling, and cameras with film, and fax machines, and wires and CD’s and dial-up internet and telephones and encyclopedias and the yellow pages and catalogs and hand-written letters may have all become obsolete… what in if anything, became obsolete in our public schools during the same time period?

Plenty.

Here are 12 things that have become obsolete in public schools during the past NCLB decade:

• Critical Thinking

• Hands-on Science

• Field trips

• Morning Recess

• Grades based on Teacher Judgment

• Creative Writing

• Physical Fitness

• Bilingual Education

• Haiku

• Fine Arts

• Tolerance

• Extracurricular Activities

You can keep up with what’s obsolete in your school by checking your local newspaper.  If you can find one.

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Filed under public education, school reform, technology in schools

THE THIN LINE THAT SEPARATES A ROUTINE FROM A RUT…

In the daily rhythms of the classroom, there is a thin line between a routine and a rut.

The very best teachers have mastered the art of daily routines:  those practices and systems that frame all good instruction.  Like dancers, the routines provide a foundation– a consistent flow– so that improvisation, expertly timed, can flourish; so that creative energy can be saved for the more nuanced moves. There can be more artistry and risk taking.

When the daily routine is mastered– it becomes invisible. Like good magic.

The organizational structure, the daily tasks, the consistent action, the behaviors kids can count on—the culture of “this is how we do things here”–  these are the powerful routines that precede learning.

During the diligent and precise planning that goes into an instructional day you can be sure of this: something will have to flex.  Some “best-laid” plan will be modified to account for the unexpected nature of classroom life and the disruptions and surprises and hiccups that accompany the sometimes-messy business of teaching and learning.   The lesson plan, dashed in light pencil on an etch-a-sketch, is a moving and movable target.  But not the routines.  Those, you can take to the bank.

Every day that kids come into class they can count on some routines:

• We complete quick-writes immediately after watching CNN for Kids.

• We take the roll and report our absences.

• We review the learning goal before each lesson…

• We post that learning goal on the board– in the same place we always post it.

• We “Take out our dashboards and update our reading minutes.”

• We switch to the next learning center (only) when the music cues us… like gymnasts moving to the next event—and …

• We leave each center as organized and clean as we found it.

• We walk as a class to lunch.

• We pick up the trash around our desks before we are excused.

• We squirt some Purell on our hands before we touch the computer keyboards.

• We stretch before we run the track.

• We post the schedule for computer time… and everybody gets a turn.

And there are dozens more.  At least.

To be sure, there are days when the routines are interrupted: the rainy days daze and delays or the extended assembly that eliminates our guided reading groups altogether.   Or the fire drill for which there is no convenient time.  But for the most part, the daily routines run like well-kept clocks.  Like the tides and phases of the gibbous moon.  Predictable. Reliable. Essential.

But not even strong routines can survive complacency. Routines become a rut when enthusiasm wanes and attention wanders.  The optimism, the creative energy, the expectations, the will to excel, the unshakeable resolve, the passion that was so easily summoned in the days before the year began, too often dissipates and dies in the doldrums.  Even for the very best of teachers.

A rut is what happens when the work becomes humdrum; dull, monotonous, unproductive and hard to change.  Best practices devolved into bad habits.  Bad teaching.

There is a thin line between a routine and a rut and often the two extremes are only kept separate by a wall of fire.

I wonder if school leadership is the ability to keep that fire burning.  I wonder if I can create the same spark by lighting a match or rubbing two sticks together.  I wonder if I should stoke the coals, or roll back over and go to sleep.

Simultaneously Posted at Leadertalk.

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Filed under El Milagro, public education, teaching

THE TURN-AROUND PLACE

Allen Odden is a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the  University of Wisconsin-Madison who claims to know how to turn around low achieving schools.  In fact he wrote a book about the topic called “Ten Strategies for Doubling Student Performance”.  He doesn’t work in schools, he studies those of us who do.  So his premise is that school turnarounds are not a new phenomenon and that “we”  know how to fix them, and “we know how to literally double student performance in low income schools, and in the process take huge chunks out of the achievement gaps that separate students along racial and socioeconomic lines.”

In a recent article in Education Week entitled We Know How to Turn Schools Around, Odden identifies 10 core elements he picked up from studying schools just like El Milagro.  Here is Odden’s checklist:

ONE: Create a sense of urgency.

TWO:  Set ambitious goals: (e.g.; to double student performance on state tests, to double the percentage of students scoring at advanced levels, to make sure that no student performs below the basic level at the end of 3rd grade, and that all students leave that grade reading on level.)

THREE:  Throw out the old curriculum and adopt new textbooks, create new curriculum programs, and start to build, over time, a common understanding of effective instruction.

FOUR. Move beyond a concentration on state tests and use a battery of assessments, including formative and diagnostic assessments, common end-of-curriculum-unit assessments, and benchmark assessments.  All of these enable teachers to make midcourse corrections and to get students into interventions earlier.

FIVE:  Create and implement an intensive and ongoing professional-development program. (The best schools form collaborative teacher teams— aka, professional learning communities—that meet often, make use of student data, and work with school-based coaches to improve curriculum and instruction.)

SIX:  Provide extended learning time and extra help for all students to attain proficiency. (e.g., Some combination of one-on-one or small-group tutoring for struggling students, together with extended-day and summer programs that emphasize providing academic help.)

SEVEN: Use time effectively. (Core instructional time for reading, math, and increasingly science is protected from intrusions; each minute is devoted to teaching the class. Literacy time often is extended to 90 to 120 minutes a day.)

EIGHT:  Teachers lead grade- and subject-based professional learning communities. Most of the instructional coaches are the school’s best teachers, and they orchestrate the overall professional-development system. And principals provide real instructional leadership.

NINE: Staff members read the most recent research, reach out to experts in the field, look for and use best practices, and take responsibility for assessing the impact on student learning of what they do, improving instructional practices when student results are not what’s desired.

TEN:  Recruit the talent needed to accomplish lofty goals and implement the collaborative and powerful educational strategies discussed here.

Ok.  So that is his list.  It just so happens that at El Milagro we have been down the path on all 10 core elements.  They are in place. Maybe that is why we have never missed an AYP goal, never missed a year of positive gains on the API, and recently been named a Title I Academic Award Winning School in the state of California.  Or maybe our success has come from going even deeper when initiating school reforms.

There are three problems with the good professor’s premise:

First, it assumes that a “turn around school”  is one that is getting better test scores.  But  perhaps the bigger challenge in school leadership is protecting kids from the craziness of schools obsessed with higher test scores– while still getting higher test scores! It is harder to get results when you refuse to become a test prep academy or when your school still values the meaningful extracurricular activities that don’t always directly tie in to testing (like athletics, theater, the arts, and music).

Secondly,  this article (and the publication of his book!) assumes a college professor has some authority on an issue he has “studied”… as opposed to a having actively engaged in the work of really turning a school around!  It is much like hiring a sports writer to coach an NFL team to the Superbowl or a film critic to create an academy award winning movie.

Finally, in concentrating on these broader, more obvious initiatives that we already stumbled across years ago… Odden’s list misses (at least )10 core elements that run even deeper into the DNA of a successful school.  For example, we have found that to turn a school around and sustain long term, continuous improvement, you must:

• Strike a BALANCE between raising students and raising test scores

• ENGAGE CHILDREN  in their own learning and growth; help them to be experts in analyzing their own test data and set goals accordingly

• Lead parents in a community transition from parent involvement to PARENT ENGAGEMENTwhere parents’ energy is first and foremost directed toward helping their child be a successful learner

• Integrate successful TECHNOLOGY solutions that bridge the digital divide and simultaneously accelerate learning

• Create systems that support STUDENT WELLNESS (academic, social, emotional, mental, medical, dental), especially for students who are otherwise at high risk

• Promote healthy NUTRITIONAL HABITS  and a climate that promotes daily exercise

• Maintain a BEHAVIOR POLICY  that is clear, democratic, humane, and prudently applied (as opposed to “zero tolerance”)

• Promote COMMUNITY SERVICE and each students’ capacity for contributing to others

• Create a sense of individual EFFICACY  among staff and students

• Foster RESILIENCY in individuals and in the school organization as a whole.

Those are my ten.  For now. There will be more innovations for professors to study in how we turn our schools around.

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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, public education, resiliency, school reform, standardized testing, teaching

LIVING STRONG

It seems like we are swimming in data.

The sun is shining and the lifeguard tower is buzzing with activity.  (I wonder sometimes if they are really keeping their eyes on the water.) I wonder who is up there at all. No matter, we have our fins… and we are swimming in a sea of data.

We swim with the tide and sometimes we push against it.  But one thing for certain when you are swimming in data:  there is no shortage of information.  And no shortage of assessments that produce the data.  It’s like an underwater upwell pouring volumes of new trends into the channel.  Creating more waves.  Faster currents.  A nuanced flow.  And of course, the occasional rip tide that threatens to pull you out beyond the comfortable landforms that tether us all to the beach; like this past week, when a rogue wave washed across and knocked us off our feet… just as we were looking comfortably in another direction.

New data.

California released the results of the 2009 Physical Fitness Tests that were administered  last Spring to all of our 5th  and 7th graders. In a nutshell… our kids tanked!  We were in the bottom 10 in a district of 44 schools.  Bottom 10 because only 14% of our 5th graders met the physical fitness benchmarks for all 6 (out of 6) exercises.  7th grade was not much stronger: 17% met all 6 benchmarks.

They were not asked to swim across the English Channel or benchpress their teacher’s Prius.  They were not required to compete in the Rock and Roll Marathon. They simply had to meet the benchmarks on a prescribed set of exercises:

Sit-ups

Push-ups

Sit and reach

Torso Extension

Interval Run (Aerobic)

Body Mass Index

14% were able to do it.  The very best school in the district managed to have 50% of their students meet the benchmarks.  Statewide… it was only 34%.

So during our staff meeting last Friday we looked at the data as if it were accurate and reflective of our students’ state of fitness.  We identified the tidal trends; made no excuses.  We asked what is up.

“What is up?  How is it that we are a charter school, with all the resources we need to serve our kids–  a track,  a fitness course, a PE program, competitive teams, and a director with a degree in Physical Education… and this is the result?  What is up?!”

And we brainstormed the root causes just like we dig deep into the data on reading and writing and algebra and math and science and social studies.  We looked at the trends.  We looked at our 5th graders’ relative strength (aerobic) and weakness (flexibility!) and how it seemed to shift by 7th grade where their strength was sit-ups and weakness was the torso extension (weakness in the lower back  is a bad harbinger for high school athletics!)

We concluded that these results stemmed from at least three conditions:

• First, we did not do a very good job of preparing our students (or teachers… or parents) for the 2009 Physical Fitness Test.  It twas an afterthought conducted hastily in the Spring while everyone had their eye on the California Standards Test.

• Second, our students are not getting enough EXERCISE.

Many are sedentary couch potatoes who would rather play video games or watch television than go outside and exercise.  Sometimes overprotective parents encourage them to stay indoors.  And in some neighborhoods you can hardly blame them. Our school is bordered by trolly tracks a freeway and surface streets that race and crowd like freeways.  There are shady motels, apartment complexes with high turnover and strange faces, sex offenders, street gangs, graffiti artists, and a lot of unsupervised kids of all ages.  And there are limited places to exercise.

• Third, our students, in general, do not have healthy DIETS. They eat bags of red hot cheetos and takis the size of pillows.  They drink Red Bull and sugary juice mixes and 64 ounce caffeinated sodas– they consume endless fast food and junk food offered in over-sized portions.

And in a community bearing now the full brunt of the nation’s sagging economy–  the unemployment, the lack of health care, the work-three-jobs, the all nighters and grave yard shifts, the eat-to-survive and find-whatever-comfort-food-you-can— our children pay.

According to the National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions (NACHRI):

“This is the first generation of children that will be sicker, and die younger, than their parents.”

At El Milagro, this got our attention. So we found some more data:

• 16 percent of children (over 9 million) 6-19 years old are overweight or obese — a number that has tripled since 1980.

• In addition to the 16 percent of children and teens ages 6 to 19 who were overweight in 1999-2002, another 15 percent were considered at risk of becoming overweight.

• Overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.

• Obesity-associated annual hospital costs for children and youth more than tripled over two decades, rising from $35 million in 1979-1981 to $127 million in 1997-1999.

• Nearly one-third of U.S. Children aged 4 to 19 eat fast food every day, resulting in approximately six extra pounds per year, per child. Fast food consumption has increased fivefold among children since 1970.

• Approximately 60 percent of obese children aged 5 to 10 years had at least one cardiovascular disease risk factor, such as elevated total cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin or blood pressure, and 25 percent had two or more risk factors.

• For children born in the United States in 2000, the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives is estimated to be about 30 percent for boys and 40 percent for girls.

• According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mexican-American children ages 6-11 were more likely to be overweight (22 percent) than non-Hispanic black children (20 percent) and non-Hispanic white children (14 percent).

• There are more than 8 million uninsured children in the United States.

Sometimes there are treasures that wash ashore from that sea of data.  There is an idea or a thought or a new direction or inspiration or a movement or even the seeds of a revolution.  Like this:

We realized our kids weren’t physically fit and that their lack of fitness was a result of poor NUTRITION and a lack of EXERCISE. And that, like many of the circumstances of their lives, much of it is environmental.  It is a socio-economic phenomenon.   It is for many parents a lack of knowledge, or time, or resources, or energy to encourage a healthier pattern.

And we haven’t helped. So starting in January we are no longer allowing bags of chips and sugary drinks and junk food snacks on our campus.  We are taking the 160-calorie sport drinks out of the vending machines and replacing them with bottled water.  We are prohibiting classroom parties that feature stacks of Von’s cupcakes and dixie cups filled with Mountain Dew.

Healthy snacks only. 100% frozen juice bars instead of popsicle rewards.

We will teach our students how to read nutrition labels.  We will give them the skills to defend themselves against the conspiracy of junk food marketers that intentionally manipulate ingredients– more fat, more sugar, more salt, bigger portions– to lure them in.

And we will inspire our students to exercise.  We will challenge them to be active at least :60 minutes a day.  Academic progress is in large part a function of wellness.  Kids who are fit and healthy and well nourished perform better than sedentary children whose eating habits are haphazard.

That’s what we learned this week from the sea of data.  It was a seminal moment.  A gift to our students that will no doubt take them some time to appreciate. To live healthy.

To Live Strong!

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Filed under California charter schools, childhood obesity, children at risk, El Milagro, physical fitness, public education