Saturday, August 27, 2016

Visiting Mosaic

The school year has started.  In fact, this is week three.  Today I made my first trip to visit the students and teachers in Mosaic.  As I walked into the school, I did have a sense of guilt that this was my first trip to see what is going on but I have had to balance that feeling with the my concern of being in the building and being a distraction.

Walking into Mosaic I was pleasantly greeted by several students with, "Hi Dr. Calhoun."  I can't tell you how fulfilling it was to here those voices.  Then I heard Mr. Martin say, "What's up Dr. J."  That is my favorite nickname by the way.  My trepidation was immediately relieved.

Mr.  McClintock has way of inviting people into Mosaic that reflects my experience.  He says, "Come down and breathe the oxygen."   It is as if breathing the oxygen can make you feel good.  I can tell you that breathing the oxygen in fact did give me a feeling of contentment and exhilaration.  It is an emotion (or a high) that I miss tremendously.

It brought me further joy to hear and see how smooth the start of the year has gone.  Students are focused and have a deeper understanding how they can be in charge of their own learning.  Teachers have learned the best ways to communicate with each other and with students.  There is a certain structure that is now in place that allows for more freedom.  That may be contradictory in it's nature but yet that is what is happening.  The experience reminded me of the book Triggers, written by Marshall Goldsmith. He writes about the need for structure to be able to improve but also indicates it has to be the right structure.  I would add that the structure must be balanced so that you give individuals the power to develop their own structure which then reinforces the learning cycle.  This is what I see happening in Mosaic.

So, thanks to all the Mosaic folks who made me feel at home.  I will be back soon.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Urgency for Transforming Education

Today is not soon enough for educators to take charge of the (trans)reform movement.  The urgency has been created by the ill-informed efforts of politicians and financiers who believe they have a solution.  Without a doubt, there is a need for transformation in education as our current educational system is failing to adequately prepare students for the future.  There is a sense of irony regarding these two points, reformers who have no knowledge and/or context and the transformation that needs to happen.  The mandates and initiatives of the ill-informed are actually cementing the pillars of a broken system that needs to be dismantled.   Instead of rethinking the basic tenets of how we currently educate students to prepare them for the information age, reformers have stifled the ability for educators to change with standardization,  high stakes assessment, and policies which, in fact, devalue the very people who are working to make the best of a broken system, teachers.  So educators, it is time to unite.  It is time to take charge of the (trans)reform movement.


Here is why I think educators need to take charge of (trans)reform.  The rhetoric often thrown about among legislators, educational pundits, and/or those who criticize public education blame teachers and not the system.  Financiers want to privatize education, legislators want to increase standardized testing to create more accountability, critics call for more policies to get rid of teachers and these superficial changes are not solving the problem(s).   Having spent 35 years as an educator in a variety of districts with a variety of demographics, I see the need for change but can't support undermining the accomplishments of teachers.  There is a reason why the critics don't get it. At a recent educational conference for educational leaders in Colorado, the Superintendent of the Englewood School District, Brian Ewert, made a poignant observation.  He told a story about having vision but not having the skills, knowledge, or context to make the vision a reality.  He related that many of the reformers have no connection to the educational system and they are financing initiatives, or voting for policies for which they don't fully understand the consequences.  They have no context, little institutional knowledge, and no skills to ensure implementation.  The comments confirmed, in my mind, the need for educators to take control of the movement to make transformational changes in education.

I want to emphasize that there is a need for change. Current reformers point to the results of National and International assessments that indicate the United States is way behind other industrial age countries.  Frankly, these test scores are meaningless to me.  The reasons why standardized tests don't give an accurate picture of the effectiveness of any educational system is to lengthy too discuss in this post (read Yong Zhao's new book, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon, for a quality examination of this topic).  However, there is a real and compelling need for change and this needs lies in the fact that the times, often called the age of information, demand preparation of a new type of graduate from the K-12 system. In addition, colleges and universities will have to adapt to the new age as well. Technology has created a breakneck pace for change in our society and we now need to implement transformational change to our educational system which will prepare students for a future filled with uncertainty.


Transformation must start with changing the basic infrastructure of what happens in the classroom.  The foundational element of this infrastructure should be built around student motivation.  Creating a personalized learning environment capitalizing on student interest and passion will address the need to develop students who can be complex thinkers, effective communicators, collaborators, creators, and contributors.  Educators must become facilitators of learning opportunities that allow students to intersect their interest with rigorous and meaningful learning.  Allowing students to follow a personalized path will help create agility in the learners.  This is an important aspect of the new educational environment as we know the pace of change is impacting the work force (a 2013 Oxford Martin School study indicates 47% of today’s jobs will be automated by the year2034, ).  We need graduates who can identify problems, develop solutions, and navigate a continually changing work environment.


With a focus on motivating students, an emphasis on how humans learn will be critical.  Most learning happens informally.  The formal school environment creates artificial learning.  By individualizing the curriculum, teachers facilitate learning that is meaningful and relevant to the students.  By capitalizing on higher levels of student interest, learning happens when it makes sense.  The educational environment must provide opportunities to make something, do something, and experience something.  Because of this, assessment in this environment is authentic.  Students will follow a learning path that is defined and redefined while activity is happening.  The determination of learning will happen in non-traditional formats.  Educators can do so much more with a focus on how humans actually learn.  There is a significant amount of science related to how skill and knowledge acquisition happens naturally which should be used in the transformative environment.


A further testimony to the need for change lies in the current nature of how students interact with schooling.  There is a spectrum of interaction which is not getting the job done.  At the far end of the spectrum are the students who are totally disconnected from school. They don't attend and are getting an education in areas of life we would say is not healthy for them or society (often on the street, involved in drugs, crime, or other deviant activities).  Some students are disengaged.  They may attend school but fail miserably in their school work.  They are not interested in what school has to offer.  These students either won't do or can’t do what they are asked.  Then there are students who are compliant.  They sit in the classroom and do what they are told; memorizing and regurgitating year after year.  They learn what they need to learn in the moment and then move to the next grade.  After years of compliance, they have little to show for their efforts. Finally, there are engaged learners.  For a few, school ignites the fire to learn and there are some students who actually find meaning in what they are told to learn.  I submit that most of our students fit in the first three descriptions.  I further submit that we need to move our students to a fifth category on this spectrum.  That is empowered learners.


Moving students to this end of the spectrum requires a transition to a new way of approaching learning.  As mentioned above, this means a focus on the students.  Personalization of the learning experience is a key to empowering students to take charge of what and when they learn.  If you can't imagine what this might look like and you see the need for educators to take charge of reform, then I encourage you to join the conversation regarding transformation.  If educators continue to sit and implement the vision of those reformers who have no context, our system will continue to fail students who deserve more from an educational system than current practice. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why is Transformation so Difficult?

In several recent conversations and observations with students, parents, and educators  I have become much more aware of why the concept of educational transformation is so difficult. 

Let me give some background information and then explain. 

The Mosaic Collective, our new transformative educational program for students at Castle View High School, is now in its seventh week.  I continued to be amazed at many fantastic stories coming from the teachers, students, and parents.  I also have noticed my own growth related to this new learning environment.  In the first weeks of school, I entered the room and the organized chaos made my body react in ways associated with high anxiety (i.e. cold sweat, increased heart rate, ringing in my ears).  My mind raced with thoughts of what will others think.

Yesterday, I sat in the classroom (I must note that the area is not really a classroom, it is a learning space) and quickly my mind went to a place of peace.  It is funny that my office is the place where my anxiety races to immeasurable heights and being in Mosaic brings me back to a calm and self-assuring state.  This is despite the fact I am still in an educational environment that can be characterized as, "Organized chaos."

My brain and heart have aligned to the fact that a true transformative learning environment is, well, transformative.  The learning environment is different.  It is nontraditional.  It defies what we know, what we have previously learned in, even what we have been taught is best practice. 

The difficulty I referred to at the start this blog post, is associated with how we (students, parents, educators) react to the ambiguity of the changed learning environment.  Change can bring out the best of us and the worst. 

Some examples:  Students behavior in the new learning environment can be incredible.  Watching a group of 14 or 15 year olds in the midst of their own self discovery is truly amazing.  Learning takes on a whole new meaning when the learner is self-motivated and not being told what to learn (in my mind, this is the lynchpin to transformation).  However, the behavior of students who have not figured out a learning path can be maddening for those involved.  Behaviors manifest into all sorts of avoidance techniques.  From playing video games to getting water from a fountain in the opposite end of the building.  Students creatively avoid the pursuit of their own passion and, instead, run toward the learning environment they have grown up in, asking teachers to tell them what to do (or learn).  I have talked with several students who actually want to go back to a traditional classroom because they struggle in a self-directed environment.

Parents who have been advocates of change predictably react when they witness their child struggle in the transformational learning environment.  Because they can't see how their child will end up learning a particular concept or subject, their reaction is to have their son or daughter return to the traditional.  Can my student take a regular math class?  When will my student learn the scientific method?  Will my student read Catcher and the Rye?  What about the constitution? 

Educators also struggle.  When students struggle, parents question, and our peers give us that look, our tendency is to shift, even slightly, back from where we came.  Gravity reacts with ambiguity and drags us back to what we understand, what we already know, and or where we feel comfort. 

Change is difficult.  We have always known that fact.  As an educator with 35 years of experience, I have participated in many attempts by a school/district to change educational practice in the attempt to increase student achievement.  The change efforts were always met with resistance and sometimes defiance.  Changes in industry, changes in the family, technology changes......  I think you get the picture.  Humans have a hard time adjusting to the challenges associated with change.

There is a difference with educational change which fascinates me.  There has been nothing to force educators to make the kind of changes needed to adequately prepare students for the future.  The invention of the gasoline powered engine changed transportation.  The change forced society to adapt.  The invention of the phone changed communication. Again, society was forced to change.  Today, the changes we must make due to technology is requiring, I believe, the needed forces for educators to actually change the learning environment.  The traditional classroom (aspects of which have not changed for 200 years) must adapt to the rapidly changing societal changes brought about by technology. 

Despite our natural inclination to stay in our comfort zone, we must fight this urge and work on creating a new learning environment best suited for an age where the future is unpredictable. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

From the blog of Diane Ravitch: Don’t Change Our Kids, Change Our World

Katie Osgood works in a psychiatric hospital for adolescents. She weighs in here on the debate, if there is one, about “grit.” Grit meaning perseverance, determination, character.

The kids she works with are in terrible trouble, and Katie says it is not their fault.

She writes that: “…. the hyper-focus on individual character traits like “grit” is incredibility dangerous and damaging.

“I think of my students at the psychiatric hospital where I teach. My students are overwhelmingly students of color and many are students coming from the most debilitating poverty. And the oppression, neglect, and abuses they’ve experienced often manifest as significant mental health problems. Many have severe depression, suicidal ideation, debilitating anxiety, aggressive outbursts, or self-harming behaviors. According to Duckworth fans, these are kids significantly lacking in “grit”.

“And my kids are often very quick to give up on academic tasks. I work with many students who shut down, refuse to come to class at all at times, and instead sleep the day away. Some students act out aggressively-throwing chairs, making threats, storming out of the classroom-as a way to avoid difficult tasks. Others may act the class clown, disrupting the flow of the lesson.

“But there is always a reason behind these behaviors. I would never begin by assuming they lack perseverance, but would always look to why students are acting the way they are. Are they overloaded with their personal problems often including trauma and abuse? Have they been told repeatedly through test scores, grade retention, and frequent detentions/suspensions that they are no good and have internalized that they are “failures”? Is that student experiencing PTSD symptoms affecting their ability to concentrate and to persevere?

“The hopelessness these kids often feel is not a character flaw, but a normal human reaction to unconscionable circumstances. In fact, given the trials many kids have faced, they have shown amazing perseverance and grit in their lives.
Now I am not saying there are never times when kids just need some encouragement to persevere through a task. Good teachers use their relationships with students and expertise to decide if a little extra grit is what’s needed or if the task at hand should be modified or perhaps to discover if the student requires some other more pressing need be met first. Teaching grit is secondary at best in this process. The idea that this trait is a key ingredient missing in our students leading to low educational outcomes is preposterous. In fact, given the difficult life obstacles we do not protect so many children from in this country, this narrative is downright offensive.

“When we acknowledge how our society has utterly failed low-income communities of color through purposeful disinvestment, brutal police tactics, mass incarceration disparately impacting people of color, the lack of affordable housing, the criminal shortage of any jobs (much less living wage jobs), the gutting of a quality welfare system and other public services, and the destruction and dismantling of public education opportunities through school closures, turnarounds, and privatization efforts, we see entire populations thrown into abusive conditions.”

There is much more to read and think about here.

Dr. James M. Calhoun Jr. says:

Katie’s comments really hit home. It is time to recognize the complexity of a changing world and now we are required to have a deeper understanding of what students go through. I know students from poverty have a significant burden to bear. However, I also know students who seem to have it all suffer from societal pressure as well. Students of any race, creed, disadvantaged or advantaged, have burdens to bear which are distinctive and new when related to other generations.

I add this perspective to the comments above. Education had better rise to the occasion and provide meaningful opportunities for students to experience learning. This means flipping the educational focus. Educators must start with students pursuing their passion and/or interest and let learning of content stem from this journey. The pursuit of someone else’s definition of what to learn does not inspire feelings of excellence. Instead, it fosters millions of students who compliantly learn what they must so they can prepare for more of the same in college, or it distills the elements of rebellion manifesting in poor behavior, dropping out, or, as Katie writes, a sense of hopelessness. The missing ingredient for today’s student is not “grit.” What is needed is an education meeting the needs of students who must prepare for a future Nostradamus can’t predict.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Response to a Request for Support

I recently received an email asking to support legislation created by Congressman Jared Polis (CO) and Donald Payne (NJ).  On paper the synopsis looks good.  More money for professional development to help improve the performance of teachers and principals (after all, everyone knows we could fix public education by getting rid of poor performers????). 
Here is my short reply to the email: "With all due respect, any staff development not developed, organized and implemented at the grass roots level is doomed to fail.  Politicians are destroying public education in the name of improvement or reform.  I appreciate the efforts of the Congressmen but will not be supporting their work."
I did get a nice note back explaining the bills upside.  The explanation included this statement, "The only requirements in the bill are related to the teacher and principal evaluation systems to ensure that they a) don’t overly rely on student test scores; and b) connect to professional development opportunities. The other provisions in the bill are an allowable use of funding, and districts would have flexibility on how to use those funds."  Sounds OK.....????  I am still apprehensive (that word does not capture how strongly I feel) about the parameters dictating how we should spend money, even if it is on staff development.
So here is my next response.
Thanks for the additional information.  Where can I read more about this proposed piece of legislation?
I am currently reading a book by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum called That Used to Be Us.  The author's celebrate the work of Michael Johnston and SB 10-191 which they refer to as the Great Teachers and Leaders Bill.  SB 191 has created a train wreck for teacher evaluation.  It is frustrating when such well known authors reinforce initiatives which don't work in the name of improving education.
As a high school principal, I am trying to understand how the goal of this bill, teacher improvement, will be accomplished through the parameters the bill puts in place.  In our district, evaluation is based on a deficit model where teachers have to prove they are highly effective.  This has created a system of hoop jumping that is a complete waste of time.  Not to mention that 50% of the evaluation will be determined by standardized testing.  These tests are taken once a year by students who could care less about the results.  Nor do the tests align with everything we believe is important for students to know and do.  There is also considerable momentum being gained in the opt-out of testing movement.  Currently, schools and teachers are being evaluated, compared, and micromanaged because of these test results. 
In short, I am very leery of the well-intentioned efforts of those who are not close to what is actually happening in public schools.  The misinformation, rhetoric, and out right lies being propagated in society is not helping education.  I would be the first person in line to say public education needs to improve. However, my revelation is public education needs to change from the classroom.  This means teachers must operate from a different perspective in relation to students.  Educators must flip the traditional process of teaching what has already been decided (standards) and then using strategies to trick students into learning information they could find on their cell phones.  Educators are no longer the only experts.  We must focus on using student motivation, interest, and passion to help them learn how to learn.  This is what we are working on at Castle View High School. 
Again,  Thanks for the dialogue.