Saturday, August 31, 2013

Uncommon Culture and Common Core


      Much is being written about the Common Core State Standards and the implied transformation and reformation of public education.  For over 20 years, school reform has been a hot topic that has embraced everything from standards and accountability to career technical education to tech integration and more. 
     And now, we have a new system that has been embraced by almost the entire nation, state by state.  Seemingly, it is a move in the right direction.  Under the new standards, the focus is on critical thinking, divergent answers, as well as processes and application.  Again, this makes sense.  Our previous implementation of standards focused on low-level rote learning that did not allow for in-depth analysis or higher-level learning.  Although there are a lot of unanswered questions about the implementation of the CCSS, most have high hopes that it is a move in the right direction – at least in terms of the power of any set of standards. 
     There is the rub.  How powerful can a set of standards be?  Essentially, they are a set of blue prints of what is expected.  And naturally, we have to start there.  However, we also know that it’s going to take a great deal more than new standards to reform, or better yet, transform education.
     Whether we look at dropout rates, student satisfaction, or maybe yet, employment rates of college grads, we know we need something different in education, especially at the secondary level.  We need something that offers students a chance to have a very different educational experience.
      My friend and edupartner Jon Corippo (@jcorippo) always uses the terms “transformational.”  Students need to have an education that literally changes, or transforms, their lives.  They need something that looks and feel completely different than where they’ve been.  Again, this will not miraculously happen from a new set of standards.
      Implicit in the CCSS is the idea that pedagogy will change as well.  And with the onset of necessary tech integration, changing employment and career situations, as well as the new standards, pedagogy will have to change.  What teaching is and what a teacher does will be very different than many of our traditional definitions.  Almost all of the previous trappings of teaching and learning are going to be analyzed and forced to evolve.
      This is really about culture.  Traditionally, school culture has only been talked about in limited formats such as school spirit or response to emergency situations.  But school culture is really how the day-to-day educational environment functions.
    Culture will define the day-to-day experience for each student.  What students really want and need are really reasonable and predictable.  They want teachers who care and are available to support them.  They want classes and learning to be about their interests, their needs and their goals.  They want a system that supports them and helps get to wherever they are going in quality and successful manner.  In essence, they wanted relevance, relationships, engagement and rigor (as redefined).
      How do we deliver these expectations in a new 21st century means?  It is school culture.  Everything that really makes learning possible starts with culture.  Are our schools places where teachers care?  Are they available and easy to connect with?  Are they open to allowing students to pursue individual interests?  Do they see themselves as facilitators of individual learning vs. the agents of some sort of innocuous set of standards?
      So, how do we get there?   First, we have to make the topic of school culture first and foremost.  So, as teachers learn in Teacher College, the importance of educational culture has to be emphasized.  When our schools and institutions are being reformed, trained, transformed, etc., school culture has the be a major part of the backdrop.  When educators attend professional development, learning or educational culture has be part of that on-going training.
     And what does this really look like everyday?  Well, I am fortunate to work at high school that has not only embraced 21st century learning, but also embraced an emphasis on school culture every day.  Here are some examples we’ve implemented to have a new and better school culture (don’t know why all schools aren’t trying these and more):

·     Cell phones.  Most schools ban them.  Don’t.  Try to figure out how to use them educationally or professionally. 
·     Staff Contact and Communication.  Our staff just publishes our cell phones and other contact info.  If educators feel uncomfortable with this, Google Voice is great.  But either way, make yourself available. 
·     Social Media.  Again, most schools just ban and ignore.  We can’t ignore, ban or dismiss things that are changing the world.  Indeed, figure out to use them educationally and professionally.  Our school wants students to communicate with us so we don’t care if that’s a text, e-mail, phone call, instant message on social media or in person.  This idea of teachers not connecting with or communicating with their students is archaic.  We work together and therefore need to know how to contact one another.  By the way, Facebook could easily be every school’s best newsletter.  That’s just one example and there many more.
·       Student Surveys.  We’ve done this in college for years, but usually at the end of the course.  Good teachers have done these for years in a variety of ways.  Bottom line is that we should be regularly asking students for feedback on their educational experience.  Teachers need to be able to listen to their students about their needs and then adjust accordingly.  That is mastery teaching and students have great ideas.  Our school does this quarterly for all students and all classes.  With tools like Google Forms, Survey Monkey and others, this is so easy.  We need to ask often and adjust often as well. 
·       Old School vs. New (Nu) School.  Many of the institutional elements of education are just bygone traditions that have not changed with the times.  For me, it’s the library.  Most high schools have large empty libraries that are kept perfectly quiet.  Not many want to go there.  They are not friendly, social or welcoming.  Our school has a Media Lounge.  Not only does it have books and wireless Internet, but it also features snacks, event sales, tutoring, school supplies, information, events, guest speakers and more.  It’s our cultural center.  School libraries could be cultural centers.  But if they are quiet tombs with the quintessential librarian vs. being more like Starbucks or Barnes & Noble, then they won’t be. 
·       Break from the Norm/No Fear.  Schools have largely become a place where all staff and students are afraid to try new things, suggest new ideas and more.  Magic will only occur when the veil of fear is lifted.  We have to allow teachers and students the chance to try that wild idea or go for that crazy project.  We have to allow all stakeholders to dream big and go for it.  At our school, it has been everything from a school wide lip dub day, all school field trip and activity day, backwards schedules, etc.  Routines and norms are ok and necessary, but schools need to regularly break from them as well.
·       Belief in Students / Trust in Students.  As we move to more individualized and real-world projects or learning experiences, we’re going to need to trust our students.  We need to back up their ideas and allow them to go for it.  At our school, this has been things like our Senior Legacy Experiences (our version of the senior project) or even the idea of Student Project Coordinators.  Instead of TA’s who just make copies and run errands, we have students who lead classes.  They are assistant teachers and facilitators who lead groups, run sessions, assistant students one-on-one

      These are just a few examples of how one school has addressed and prioritized school culture.  It can certainly be implemented in a variety of ways depending on any school’s individual culture and goals.  But the key is that it is emphasized.  If it’s a passing comment here and there, then it’s not part of the educational mission.  Regardless of the standards or pedagogy, only a positive school culture will deliver real 21st century results.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Rigor Redefined

      For years now in education, one of the biggest buzzwords has been “Rigor.”  It was universally agreed, or at least seemingly so, that all students need to be challenged.  Students need hard work and need to be worked hard.  In theory, this sounds good and probably is good.

      However, it seems that educators and lay people alike might have interpreted “rigor” as just more of the same.  If a test has 50 questions, then 100 are more rigorous.  If a student might normally write a five-page essay, then a 10-page one is more rigorous.  If a student might have two hours of homework, then four hours is more rigorous.
      Some of this classic definition of rigor was also related to the bell curve.  In other words, only a handful of students could actually reach the top, be academic or be working at rigorous levels.  Indeed, there was a built-in elitism here in that most people were not supposed to make it. 
      The 21st century workplace and educational system cannot afford to have people who don’t make it.  The bell curve is archaic, outdated and counterproductive. 

     The flaw with this traditional definition of rigor here is that more is not necessarily better.  What could be better is something really better, something different or maybe even something deeper.  Yes, it’s time to redefine rigor in the contemporary sense as it really relates to higher-level learning and 21st century skills.

    The dominant paradigm and experience in most educational settings has been that learning was memorizing vast amounts of information.  For example, if one memorized a list of sophisticated vocabulary words and could define and spell them correctly, then that was seen as rigorous.  Indeed, even at advanced levels of secondary learning for important milestones like SAT, AP, etc., we focused on some low level definitions of “rigor.”
      As we prepare students now for truly higher level learning that requires the successful mastery and demonstration of the Four C’s (Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Communication), it seems we can do better in defining rigor.
      What is more rigorous - writing an essay about business or starting the actual business? 
      What is more rigorous - writing a research report or presenting your findings in a formal presentation to a group of experts in the real world? 
      What is more rigorous - answering 100 math questions on a handout or quiz, or applying a math principle to a real world problem-solution scenario and then testing it?
      Naturally, I could create hundreds of these examples.  The theme here is that learning, especially rigorous learning at a higher level, is not a passive experience where one performs some mundane low-level task repetitively, bur rather where one demonstrates the application of learning in a real-world, professional manner that is public and relevant.

      This will challenge many of our academic conventions.  Current systems such as AP classes, the A-G requirements and even college entrance tests do not address this new definition of rigor.  The new Common Core State Standards will address this transition to some degree.  But it will not be enough. 
      We will have to ask one another what is learning?   And more importantly, we need to ask what is learning at a higher level that is truly rigorous?
Our true definition of rigor should be based on how far a student goes in their learning.  Do they just skim the surface or truly invest themselves into a project or pursuit that forces them to interact and think a such high levels that they will have a different and better learning experience? 
       Rigor, or what is academic, has to now be judged on new criteria.  A student that designs a BBQ grill digitally, then builds the BBQ grill, then features this item on their project website or even sells it, would be seen as just as advanced, or even more so, than the student who scored a high percentage on a multiple choice math test.  Rigor will be about what one produces in a professional sense vs. what one accomplishes on paper or in a grade book. 
        Finally, back to the bell curve.  Economically and culturally, we have to want and believe that all students can learn and learn at high levels.  We need all students to seek and reach this new definition or rigor.  They might be pursuing different things.  However, they can all be involved in deeper critical thinking, more creativity and individually presenting professional and public work.  The bell curve’s days are over and rigor as we used to know it is too. 
(images courtesy of Minarets High School)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

All Students Need A Major - Long Before You Get To College

     For those of us who have been to college in our lives, do we not remember when we were able to “declare a major” as one of the most important and exciting times of our educational lives.  I remember being an 18-year-old freshman that got to take one intro course in my major along with my required General Education classes.  It was exciting and exhilarating.  It was a class that seemed real, had immediate connections to the real world and what I wanted to do.  There were older students in there as well who had just declared their major. 

    And although I eventually changed that major (as is often the case), I remember that being such an exciting journey.  I remember feeling that I had arrived at my life finally.  Some of us got that feeling when we discovered that cool elective in high school or maybe had that first part-time job.  But when we had a major in college, we were finally somebody.  We were starting a career and that gave us identity, purpose and a mission.

     The problem with that typical experience was that many of us had to wait until college to have that feeling or form that identity.  And I think that is too late. 

      It has long been understood by both educators and learners, that learning, or teaching, is more effective when the student is studying or pursuing something they are interested in themselves.  We use words like ownership, relevancy, engagement and more.  But it’s really simple.  If we like it, we learn more and enjoy doing it.  And when we enjoy doing it, we learn more. 

      But for far too long in schools, we have operated under the assumption or pedagogy that learning was something we have to just get through.  We have always taken the basics or core subjects.  And for the most part, they were presented and taught as something that we just have to do or even suffer through.  There has not been much regard for personal interest or that eventual higher level of learning.  Indeed, regardless of the reform, we are still stuck in this pedagogical quandary to some degree.

     But with technology and a better understanding of learning now, as well as a dire need to get more students to be successful, we have the opportunity to address student interests throughout our education.  Can we not learn the reading and writing skills we need by working with almost every type of genre or format available?  Can we not learn science through specific interest areas related to the environment, animals, ecology and more?  Can we not discover the passion for history by understanding our own personal history and investigating our own cultural interests?  We can take this all the way throughout all subjects.  With the availability of unlimited resources on-line, as well as the tools for all students to produce professional work, it seems like we should be able to have all or students “declare their major.”  And yes, their interests – or major if you will - will undoubtedly change over time and experiences.  But meanwhile, they will be operating, thinking, learning and competing at a much higher level.


     We now have elementary students not only reading books, but publishing them.  We have middle school students not just studying about entrepreneurism, but also actually creating their own e-commerce sites and businesses.  When I was in high school, we sometimes watched movies (some pretty bad ones too).  And now, high schoolers are making films, sharing films, showcasing their films and even selling their films.

      We do need many general skills to be successful, especially in the 21st century.  Indeed, the 21st century workplace skills of Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Communication are essential.  We need to be proficient at these, but we can use specialized or individualized interests in order to master them. 

   Additionally, the 21st century workplace is going to need students that understand “branding.”  We will all have a digital footprint – either good or bad.  If we don’t have one at all, we won’t be known either.  Owning an identity as someone who is known for something, has mastered things, has specialized and enjoyed success at a high level will be what connects us to jobs and keeps us employed. 

    So, to me, it seems that if we are concerned about the future of our economy and citizens, we need to address many things including everyone getting to “declare their major” as early as possible in their educational journey.  There is a Buddhist proverb that states, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  Well, our students are ready and the world is full of great teachers.  But students will not be ready, unless they can pursue their interests, enjoy their learning and carve out that professional identity.

(images courtesy of Foter)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Minarets - The Professional Incubator




    There are many things that are different and unique about Minarets.  For students, the hope has always been that Minarets would serve as their personal professional launching pad for any and all of their dreams.  The intent was to give students great 21st century tools, top notch support and community, as well as the academic and personal freedom to work on projects that would enhance and even inspire their careers. 
    Even with only two graduating classes, this has already taken shape.  So many of our students are pursuing professional endeavors that are based on their passions and dreams.  Whether they are in college, art school, film school, the military, culinary school, technical school, performing or being an entrepreneur, they are taking what they started here at Minarets and taking it to the next level.  That is what Minarets, as well as education, are all about. 
    As an example, Tabitha Sanchez, a 2013 graduate, is already in New York preparing to begin her collegiate career at PACE University.  While a student at Minarets, Tabitha began blogging in her English classes and started her own book blog.  This lead to her developing a large professional network that included many in the New York publishing community.  She knew she wanted to be in publishing and that New York was the place to be.  And while a student at Minarets, she was able to carve out a professional niche that got her career jump started early and set-up her university direction. 
    Cody Smith, a 2012 graduate and current Fresno State student, was looking for part-time work earlier this year in Fresno.  He applied to be a salesperson at a local car dealership.  And although he didn’t get that job, they asked him about experience that he mentioned related to technology skills.  They ended up hiring him to do web development and social media marketing.  According to Cody, he was only able to get this job due to the skills that he gained while being a student at Minarets. 
    There are dozens of unique examples like the ones above.  Many of our current students have already started their own businesses, are presenting to adults in professional situations, publishing their works on-line and more.  These represent only the beginning of what our students will be doing in the near future. 


    Minarets has attracted top quality staff to our program from day one.  Many of our staff members came to us as accomplished, award-winning and recognized professionals.  However, Minarets is a place where one’s professional skills and views expand immensely.  Indeed, Minarets is the ultimate place to have real-time, daily professional development that will literally transform one’s career.  Because of the technology, the high expectations, the individualized relationships and learning, as well as the competitive nature of the staff, Minarets staff members grow professionally in so many ways.
    Whereas most schools send teachers to conferences, we challenge teachers to present or facilitate at them.  Indeed, about 3/4 of our staff last year presented or facilitated professionally off campus to other educational professionals and leaders.  Therefore, the Professional Learning Network of Minarets staff members is expansive.  Our teachers become leaders in their field and are then sought out to present more.  They are often even offered new professional opportunities.  They also bring back great experiences to the students, staff and community of Minarets.  The highest form of learning is teaching so our teachers are not only teaching on campus but off campus as well.
    This represents many exciting things for Minarets.  We need to realize that this is also going to create big opportunities for Minarets staff members.  And because of this, some will leave to pursue these opportunities.  Just like for our students, we need to embrace the fact that our staff are lifelong learners who will follow their individual dreams and passions as far as they take them.  There was a day in education where teachers taught at one school and in one room for 40 years.  In some cases, that will still happen and there is nothing wrong with that. 
    However, the world is changing and this will not be the same for many of our educators who come from the professional incubator of Minarets.  Even before coming to Minarets, educational veterans like Kristi Mattes, Michael Niehoff, Jon Corippo, Bob Kelly and Patrick Wilson taught on several campuses in many different districts. 
    Former Ag Teacher and FFA Advisor Austin Large came to Minarets as a young teacher, made a tremendous impact on our campus and in our community and then was recruited by Texas FFA for a leadership position.
    History teachers Chelsea Milliorn and Bob Kelly both came to us just two years ago and now they are presenting all over the country and even internationally. Our Ag staff presents and leads all over the state.  Our English teachers are held up as examples of Digital Learning Leaders and Project-Based Education experts throughout a variety of professional networks.
    We need to embrace this unique quality of Minarets.  For the students, it’s a natural thing to expect, pursue and celebrate.  We have to do the same on the staff side.  Yes, it’s hard to let good people go.  However, this is part of the bigger educational community these days. 
    Minarets trains people to take risks, dream big and do great things for as many people as possible.  This means that we will be a unique place that is an incubator for all educators.  If done right, Minarets should change all students and staff for the better.


    At Minarets, professional development was not just a sidelined aspect of my teaching position but instead it was the essence of my work there.  I was given state-of-the-art technology/communications tools and consistently coached to integrate new programs, develop classroom formats and learn effective, real time systems of grading and feedback.  Also, I was encouraged not to simply participate in teaching conferences as an attendee,  but to distinguish myself as a session leader. Indeed, I was out of my comfort zone a lot at Minarets; the demands were high, but the risks I took and the creative opportunities I was given paid off personally and professionally.

    Over the last three years, I’ve taught Digital Publications, AP English and Project-Based Learning classes to 11th and 12th graders. I’ve successfully presented digital composition sessions and conducted trainings at Computer Using Educators (CUE), National Education Association (NEA), California Teachers of English (CATE) and several other conferences.  Networking with educators and programs, I’ve discovered that the skills and expertise I acquired at Minarets are in high demand. Recently, I’ve taken on new roles as Lead Teacher for our local North Fork Middle School as well as part-time AP English Instructor for Apex Online Learning High School out of Seattle, WA.

    It is obvious to me now that the dynamic environment at Minarets has made me current, capable and confident and has opened up doors in the teaching profession that I never knew existed.   Minarets High School is an unforgettable place where teachers, along with students, can “graduate” from, prepared to take on a new worlds of opportunity and challenge.