Engagement, as a condition that exists in the classroom, is not always easily defined. To steal a quote from Justice Potter Stewart when describing something hard to define: “I know it when I see it.” There is a certain energy in a classroom of engaged students. There is movement, chatter, discussion, disagreement, and no one person is the center of attention. We can say all we want about student centered learning, but until we realize that students want to be in charge of their own learning, we are going to have a hard time engaging them. Do not get me wrong, we have to guide, persuade, sell, and curate their direction, but learners want to be actively involved in the lesson. So many times I walk down the halls at PHS and notice the varied degrees of active student learning. When students are not passively listening or completing desk work, they are much more involved….engaged. I can watch the same student in various classes and see the difference an active classroom has. The engaged class is not waiting for the bell to ring, they are disappointed that it does. The challenge for teachers is to make the content available in an active exercise. In an engaging classroom students interact with information, resources, each other, and perhaps the world at large instead of being dependent on a text or the teacher for their learning.
Another year comes to close. Where does the time go? We started in August with freshman orientation and in what seems like just a few minutes later, we are getting ready to say goodbye to our seniors. This is always a bittersweet time of year for me. I am so happy to witness the accomplishments of our students. Like any other school we have a lot of amazing students. For them there is so much hope, so much promise. There are so many moments to remember. Every once in a while a student says something that just makes every minute of toil worth spending. A moment to say “ah, this is why I do what I do!” The other day, a student told me that we have a faculty the talks with students instead of down to students. You all care about us. I know I can talk to you any time I need to.” He made my day. No, he made my year! That kind of feedback, just once every so often, is all I need to keep doing this job I have been blessed with. Often I am asked this time of year, “Bet your glad the year is over?” I can honestly say no. I miss the kids almost as soon as they are gone. I miss being able to tease them. To witness their unabashed energy and their ability to see things through a lens (youth) I no longer have. They are not jaded by a view clouded by age and disappointments. They are so capable and talented and when they choose to tap into those qualities they have very few boundaries to what they can do. It is my hope that they choose work hard and realize the only real boundaries they face are between their ears.
As I reflect on this year, I can’t help but acknowledge that I have spent too much time lamenting on the current state of education and designing a new building. Although it is troubling to think that we are evermore tied to test scores and a common core of learning objectives and concepts to be covered, I know deep in my heart that we still get to touch the lives of so many people and make a difference every day we step into our “learning” world. Education reformers can talk about “value added measures” and achievement scores all they want but if they have never been in a school and worked with kids today, they have no idea how to measure the value of the statement “I know I can talk to you when I need to” I am truly blessed to get to do what I do! Confucius was right. I have never had to work a day in my life, I just get to do what I love to do…..everyday!
(Editors note: I write in this space primarily for me. Putting down my thoughts for others to read…or not, allows me to own my words and makes me more transparent….for what that is worth)
I sometimes become frustrated about administrating in a public school. I guess it is especially easy to be frustrated at the end of a school year. The students are burnt out. The teachers are ready for some time off to recharge. People get testy at the end of a school year. In these austere times, school personnel wonder about next year as it looms on the horizon. There are openings to fill, school program changes to be made, and assignments to be given. The end of this year is different though. Not only are there positions to fill, and life changing decisions to be made, along with those, Board members and administration are being forced to make tough decisions about our new school building as our budget is not big enough to cover everything we want. A quote that runs through my mind in times like these comes from John Kennedy when he examined his authorization of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, “Victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.” When things go well and there are not tough messages to give to people, it is easy to take credit. When it comes to explaining things people do not want to hear, well let’s just say the rats jump ship and blame can be spread far and wide. Situations such as these challenge school leaders. There are easy(ier) ways to navigate problem laden times. One can make politically correct decisions and try to keep as many people happy as possible (an approach that usually fails based on experience.) Oh, on a short term basis doing things this way works, but if one’s core values are based on what is best for the students and the general direction of the institution, doing things the easy way usually falls short of fulfilling the most important mission….KIDS FIRST! It is hard to keep the focus where it needs to be. Many times it is easier to find ways to deflect blame and take credit in the name of self preservation, but more often than not, doing so goes against the core values that make a school good for kids. So….back to the beginning of the rambling post, I am frustrated, and I know why. When faced with situations that challenge the core values established by the self and the institution, a leader knows what must be done but is tempted to take the easy road and shirk responsibility. The further school leaders allow themselves to drift away from the classroom and the daily ups and downs of leading the learning process, the easier it is to move away from the core values that matter and gravitate to decisions that are based on political expediency. I think sometimes I have allowed myself to drift dangerously far away from what is important in the school and that I must re-dedicate myself to staying close to the learning processes and students as well as challenge myself to stay true to the core values that make school a great place for students.
I know it is nothing original these days for schools to create “lip dub” videos that display their school’s students, activities and clubs, and other identifying traditions by enthusiastically lip syncing to popular music. Last month Paris High School joined the ranks of high schools that have made one of these productions.
Our stated objective was to create a video to use as a part of freshman orientation to show students important aspects of student life and to impress upon prospective students that school spirit and school community are very important parts of what we are. A talented group of students took on the task of writing, organizing, planning, editing and producing the video. Original lyrics were put together and performed for the video. Students created choreographed scenes and worked to make them fit into the video’s theme.
The video is not perfect, (but it is pretty darn good if you ask me) but it represents a series of changes that are transforming our learning community. We are making our school more collaborative and academically integrated. We have worked hard to build empathy, and school community that revolves around not just student achievement, but also emphasizes acceptance and teamwork.
As I watched the project unfold, I was very proud of our student body and teaching staff as they worked seamlessly to create banners, signs, and plan on how best display our different school groups and clubs. Because we have worked hard to build strong relationships among all of the people and stakeholders at PHS, I really think our identity comes across in this video. We have learned to work together. We have learned to depend on one another to get things put together. We have become proud of our Paris Tiger Style!
Illinois Principal’s Association Administrator’s Academy
(This is a rambling, unedited mess. Maybe I will come back and re-write it, maybe not) If you have noticed, I have not written much here lately. I have pulled back on my social media participation. Part of that is out of necessity. Being part of a team that designs and prepares to build a new school is incredibly time-consuming. Yet, there are other reasons why I have not blogged, tweeted, or participated in my usual technology pursuits. I have experienced some personal disillusionment brought on by several factors. My school is being asked to do more with less. The state sends us less money, but tells us to completely revamp our curriculum, change our teacher and administrative evaluation systems, and prepare for yet more exams based on our new curriculum (and we are supposed to use the results to evaluate staff?!) Hard to get my staff and student body fired up about that. . Yet, in some ways we have been lucky. The districts that govern our school have been very fiscally conservative and we have been able to avoid the draconian cuts our neighboring districts have experienced. If things do not change for our state in the next year, though, (fat chance) we will be looking at some serious cuts next year. The new PARCC exams that will be here in a blink of an eye will require us to upgrade our technology. Three years ago we seemed to be on top of the technology wave with lots of new computer technology, but three years of austere budgets leaves us with a very outdated network. We will be forced to upgrade what we have (with resources to be determined?) to do what? Give our students standardized tests? To keep myself moving forward in these times I choose to spend more time with students. Spare moments are spent in hallways, classrooms, and the media center. I like to talk to and tease our students. They remind me everyday why I do what I do. Connecting within the building is more important than connecting anywhere else. Leadership is challenging on the best days. Leading in the times that I have done a poor job of describing is very hard. I know that I cannot let the circumstances we face keep me from being enthusiastic. I have to keep us moving in such a way that we keep our students as our key focus. Sometimes I need to be the crazy guy that dances first (or second). Part of my inspiration has come from this letter written by a teacher. The letter was actually written as a response to thisarticle in the Washington Post. Not moving forward is never an option for me. Now is too important of a time to do anything but fight for what is best for kids. I have come to the conclusion that ultimately I am responsible to my students, not the state mandates, nor the federal requirements. My job is to unveil the insanity of some of the in vogue reforms we are be subjected to and steer our efforts to doing what is best for our kids. That is the road I must take.
For whatever reason, during the last week I have been inundated with messages about items or ideas that are touted as the “real” game-changers for education. I guess it is human nature to look for the “magic” bullet that makes everything “right” (whatever that is). I have seen the be-all-to-end-all game changers masqueraded as devices, curriculum implementation strategies, applications bought from a cloud based store, conferences, professional development strategies, and test preparation programs (ugh!). The purpose of this little reflection is not to be cynical. I guess it is mainly a self reminder to look first in the image on the left of this short piece of…well, wisdom? I am sure many of the things that have me thinking do have value, but none of them have any real value without people who are willing to change, learn, take risks, and….FAIL! The real game changer is what you see when you look in the mirror.
What happens when 75 adults and 300 teenagers “lower the waterline” and let others really know them? What is the affect of bullies telling their victims they are sorry in front of a large crowd of their peers? How do students react when they find out that many of their school peers have experienced some horrible emotional situations? What is it like for students when their teachers, school administrators, school board members, and other community members share true stories about their lives and shed a tear or two? What is the affect of six hours of laughing, dancing, listening, crying, hugging, and caring for people in ways never thought of before? CULTURE CHANGE! The building of empathy and understanding. The realization that we are all so much more alike than different. The awareness of what we say, do with and to others has a major effect that can be both life affirming or devastating.
I have said before, many times, that our students don’t care what we know until they know we care. We have tried very hard to build school community and trust here the past several years in an effort to improve school performance. I think we may have really turned a corner this past week. We shut down the bell system, slowed down the prescribed learning and perhaps learned the most important lesson of all; We all matter! I hope what we have seen the past several days is a new normal. That we can all continue to have each others’ back and be real with one another. I know that initially this past week’s activities have made an impact. You can see it and feel it in the hallways and classrooms. Our new challenge is to keep this new “attitude” alive! I know it is up to me and I am the change! I hope you will join me and commit the same pledge.
Some very real tweets from PHS students this week:
So glad that #challengeday brought out the good side of people at pchs! Now let’s keep it that way
I will never forget what it felt like to cross the line today… Don’t be the reason to make anyone else. #challengeday
The most life changing day of my life… #challengeday
To those of you that went through
#challengeday today; know that “i see you, i got you & i love you”
Today was amazing & i hope everyone can become better people & always be there for others no matter what #ChallengeDay
When you realize you’re not alone ❤ #challengeday
We need ask more questions. Like why do we do this? What if we did it this way?