Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Supporting Failure

We are three days into our new school year, and I'm thrilled to report that it has gone very well!  I was particularly pleased to see some of my teachers stepping well outside their comfort zones on the first day by maximizing student engagement and relationship building rather than tying the children down with exhaustive lists of rules. As we move forward, I've been thinking a lot about cultivating risk-taking and questions in classrooms to sustain student engagement.  I imagine almost all educators everywhere have seen Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talk, but I often wonder how many have been able to change their schools or systems to nurture, rather than kill, student's natural creativity and curiosity.
It can be overwhelming, or even terrifying, to consider upending everything we recognize in our educational system.  While we may not yet be able to organize our schools by children's interests, rather than their ages, we can make them more student-driven by designing environments and instruction that promote their natural curiosity, make it safe to take risks and fail, and cultivate self-direction.  I'm slowly checking out some of these videos about embracing failure as prime opportunity for learning, so I can support my teachers in "failing forward," so they may do the same for our students.

Note: I didn't set out to lean so heavily on Edutopia, but they just post a lot of content I enjoy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Student Passions

Last year, our school implemented a Panda Portfolio, a student interest survey to give us additional information about children's preferred ways of learning. We wanted to incorporate their passions into our instruction in a meaningful way. This year, we are completing the Portfolios electronically to give us easier access to larger data sets for grade level or schoolwide program enhancements. We learned that student self-reporting of preferences about subjects, light/noise levels, ways of presentation, etc. could help us be more mindful of student learning styles, but that tapping into passions to significantly impact instruction was a little more complex.
Reading this post gave me an "aha" about one of the potential challenges of designing instruction around student passions.  The author's first suggestion addresses my primary concern when encouraging teachers to let student interests and ideas drive the direction of instruction - meeting standards. Her suggestion is ridiculously simple. She advocates sharing the standards with students up front. Many project-based learning resources guide teachers in selecting/creating projects to to address standards without directing teachers to make the standards explicit for students. Educators have to resist the false assumption that structure and direction exclude creativity and innovation. We must be reflective and intentional as we approach instructional design to create opportunities for student passions to flourish as standards are met.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Less is More

My staff will return to work in one week. This fact is 85% exciting, and 15% anxiety-producing. Even after 20+ years in the field, the first day of school still thrills me. I think it's the idea of so much potential that makes the first day of school magical, no matter how many of them I've experienced as a student, teacher, or administrator. As a principal, I get two first days - one with the staff, and one with the students.
I've been thinking a lot about the first day for staff this year. This summer has been a time of great reflection for me, and I have many ideas for fostering a culture of collaboration.  I want to open by modeling for my staff what I'd like to see them do for students. As I reflect on how to give staff control over their learning, I find myself wanting to keep the agenda minimal and flexible. What a relief to read this post and know that others are backing away from packed agendas of highly structured activities. I want my team to leave at the end of the first day with brimming with ideas from their peers, enthusiasm for future collaboration, and anxious to return on Day Two for more!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Mindfulness in the Schoolhouse

One activity I enjoy outside of school is Bikram Yoga, a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises ideally practiced in a 104-degree room at 40% humidity. I find it to be relaxing, challenging, and a great opportunity to practice focusing my mind. The teachers encourage us to be "present" in the room, which sounds simple, but is extremely difficult, as I, like many people, live in a perpetual state of multitasking. Spending 90 minutes thinking only about my breath and my movement is an act of supreme discipline, as well as a gift.
This post about the possibilities of including mindfulness in classrooms highlights the value of the practice for reducing the stress, anxiety, and feelings of failure many students may experience in school. A key element is of mindfulness is that it rejects judgement. In my Bikram practice, one of the greatest lessons has been to use the mirror in the room for self-instruction, rather than self-judgement. Instead of viewing myself through a lens of imperfect performance, I adjust my form from the mirror's feedback and honor my progress toward full expression of the postures.  Just as this judgement-free approach allows me to take risks by trying harder and possibly falling out of position in the Bikram classroom, mindfulness practice may make school classrooms safer for children to take risks in their learning.
While exploring links in the post regarding mindfulness, I noticed this post about negative brain changes from school stress, and strategies to mitigate it. All of this content is timely for me, as I recently participated in a Title I conference in my district, during which Dr. Tammy Pawloski, Director of the Center for Excellence at Francis Marion University, presented a keynote about brain research. Dr. Pawloski talked to us about the toxic impact of stress from poverty and other factors on brain chemistry and strategies (slide 117 of link) to counteract the effects. I plan to use these resources to support my teachers as they reflect on and continue to develop their repertoires of strategies to reduce students' stress and increase their achievement.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Teaching Grit and Other Hidden Standards

I recently read this post about grit as a predictor of success in school and life and our imperative (at least according to this author) to teach it in school classrooms. My initial reaction was to wonder what that would look like in our district and state curriculum resources, but I realized that it is one of many "hidden standards" that may be incorporated into instruction. Practically every day, I hear about the constraints of limited instructional time for children and adult learners, so adding standards to our stated targets is not realistic for most of us. Through our selection of instructional resources that support the development of important performance values while core standards are being taught and 21st century skills are being cultivated, we can provide learners with coherent experiences, rather limited character lessons in isolation.
When we choose resources for use during instruction, we focus on particular standards, skills, and/or strategies we intend to address, but the interaction between each learner and the content surfaces other ideas or concepts. Being open to and actively seeking the possibilities in each resource can help us maintain attention on "what else" is being taught as our instruction proceeds.