Over the last decade, we have built a research and professional development center at our school. We call it LASER, as in Leysin American School (LAS) Educational Research.
This past week I stepped back to notice how far we’ve come and how closely our center resembles research centers at the university. Here’s a quick synopsis of one day.
In a purpose built commons room for the center, a visiting scholar is working on his own project, while two faculty members debrief a design-thinking day that we hosted the previous week. Another faculty member arrives to discuss the requirements of the Institutional Review Board for his study of our new grading policy. Must he get written permission from parents before interviewing students? (The answer is yes, as well as permission from the students.) We finish our conversation by editing a survey he is going to use in his study.
On his way out a faculty member arrives to gather materials for class. He meets the visiting scholar and soon they are discussing a common interest: getting students to take greater ownership of their learning. Shortly afterwards the room clears when everyone leaves for their classes.
In the afternoon, a group of five faculty members drives to a nearby school for a demonstration of a video recording system for professional development. We learn about the system, discuss the school’s experience using it, and ask questions to determine if we might like to purchase the system ourselves. During the car ride back to our school, we agree to at least pitch it to the deans.
I make it back just in time for a meeting with a faculty member who is implementing a new curriculum in her math class. That is, she had planned to implement a new curriculum, but the pressure to cover content for the required external exam is making her change her plans. We discuss what changes can be made at this point while preserving the integrity of her project. She asks if I’d like to co-author an article about the project and I accept.
After dinner two colleagues present a new initiative, student-staffed writing centers, in the format of a Laser Focus talk. All faculty members supported by LASER grants are required to give a Laser Focus talk. There are seven of us in the audience, including our visiting scholar. We learn about the writing centers, discuss among ourselves, and agree that this presentation is ready for submission to a conference.
And that’s one day. Visiting scholars, debriefing and planning, discussions about research, and presentations, sprinkled with class during day. There is little difference here between our activity at the high school and the activity in a research center at the university.
And while it took us years to arrive at this place, the years we spent getting here were also productive. We are living the tagline of our first professional development website, back at the beginning of this journey: Continually becoming the professionals we already are.
Faculty in LASER are happy to assist you and your school with the development of a research center. Let us know if you’d like to start the conversation.
So with American Thanksgiving coming up this Thursday, I want to post an updated and reworked list of some of the things that I am genuinely thankful for as an educator. I’m writing this from a hotel room, as the sun rises over sleepy Luxembourg, ready to head off for day 2 of an Inquiry-Based Learning conference, and I’m feeling very thankful indeed. So, here we go…in no particular order, I am truly, truly thankful for…
The Noise– Have you ever taken a few minutes in the day to stop and listen to the white noise of a school? If you haven’t then do it on Monday morning…it might just be the most beautiful sound you’ll ever hear. It’s a constant hum of laughing and learning, and failure and success, and teaching and determination and love. One of the best parts of my day is to walk down a hallway and to listen from outside the door to the sounds of kids engaged…or to stand off in the corner of the playground during recess time and listen to the shouts and squeals of happiness, as kids play and make new friends and learn how to fit in…it is definitely music to my ears, and without a doubt, the soundtrack to a beautiful day.
A Child’s Beauty – Children are the best teachers that any of us could possibly have, and the most beautiful inspirations that exist in our world. It is impossible for someone to spend a day with a child and not come away inspired and changed for the better. If you really listen to what children say, and if you take the time to watch them interact with the world, your heart will fill with joy and your smile will stretch across your face. The way they notice the little things in life that we often take for granted, the way that they are constantly curious, the utter joy that spills from their bodies when they learn something new and find a little success, and their imagination, creativity, and willingness to fail and to try, try, try again…wow…there is nothing in our world like the beauty of a child.
Committed Educators – Teaching is the most noble, honorable and important profession/vocation that we have in society, and quality teachers are as close to true and living superheroes that we have in our world. Committed educators are change agents…they are sculptors…they are artists…they are mentors…they are role models, and they are often times under appreciated. No professional works harder than a committed educator in my opinion, with the sole focus and responsibility of moulding their students into positive change-makers for our world, and into empathetic, compassionate, critical thinking, and creative members of our communities. Quality teachers are truly amazing and deserve to be lauded for their tremendous efforts and contributions to the future of our planet.
The Opportunity – The opportunity that we have as educators is incredible, and the responsibility is immense. The opportunity to re-imagine education and to break free from traditional schooling is in our collective hands, and there is no more exciting time to be an educator than right now. We have the ability to transform how we teach our kids, and how we design and redesign learning spaces, and how we write and deliver curriculum, and how we prepare our students for a rapidly changing world…awesome! We have the opportunity to be courageous and innovative and transformational…let’s seize it!
The Struggle– Watching kids learn, and grow, and fail, and develop is a beautiful struggle, and one that I will never get tired of being a part of. Growing up is hard, and trying to find your way in this world is difficult at the best of times. I love this struggle, and I love each child’s journey into becoming who they will eventually become. They all burn so bright, and their joy and pain is so open and honest and so on display. The struggle is incredible to watch, and it brings you back to that time in your life that shaped who you are. It’ll make you laugh and cry and get frustrated, and it will make you proud…but most importantly it will make you feel, and become a part of something truly special, which is each child’s journey into finding themselves, and their purpose…this struggle is at the core of what is beautiful about education.
The Constant Learning – Each and every day I learn (and re-learn) something new. Being in classrooms and interacting with students and teachers is a constant learning process that makes me a better person. I learn from my mistakes, I learn from the mistakes of others, and I learn about people and how to best support and challenge them. I learn about current educational trends and research, I learn about what’s being successful in other quality schools, I learn from my outstanding leadership and admin teams, and like I said before, I learn from the best teachers that we have…our kids. They teach me everyday about the importance of being my best self for others, and to be humble and honest and a good listener. It’s staggering how much you can learn in the run of a school day if you just open yourself up to it.
The Unexpected – An educator’s day never goes as planned and I love it. The thing about school is that you never know from one second to the next what will come your way, and this uncertainty makes me love my job. There’s always an unexpected mini crisis or a student celebration or an issue with a parent or a teacher or a kid, and it keeps us on our toes in the best possible way. From one hour to the next you can be floored by a student accomplishment, you can be bewildered by a decision that a student or adult has made, you can have a belly laugh from something that a kid says to you, and you can be thrown into a situation that will break your heart…and it’s all good. An individual school day is just like a student…ever-changing, unpredictable, surprising, and always beautiful!
The Joy – If you’re like me then coming to school everyday brings you tremendous joy…how could it not? We get to hang out with kids all day long, we get to spend time with our colleagues who are also our friends, we get to learn and feel and become better human beings because of our daily interactions with our students and each other, and we get to shape the future of our little (and not so little) kids. What other profession can offer such a joyful and purposeful existence? Just when you start to feel stressed or frustrated or overworked, you turn the corner and run into a beautiful little kid, with a huge smile on their face, and so much joy in their hearts, and they run up to you and they give you a big hug and you just melt as their energy reminds you why you love school so much. I’m so grateful for what children bring to my life!
Well, I could go on and on but I’ll leave it at that for now. I hope that some of these resonate with you, and inspire you to think about what it is that you are thankful for as we stare down Thanksgiving this week. I am thankful for the opportunity to be working with such an outstanding faculty and I’m truly grateful for our ASP community. There are only four weeks left until the holiday break so keep your energy up and keep your heart open to why you love school so much. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our kids and good to each other.
Quote of the week…
Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am thankful that thorns have roses
“Who wants meatloaf? Does anyone want meatloaf? Katia, do you want meatloaf?”
“No, I want salad,” she says, looking disinterested.
“Last chance for meatloaf,” the veteran social studies teacher of 27 years repeats. She sighs, typing in the last two names. “Okay,” she says, “the meatloaf is really good. The rest of you are going to regret this.”
And so our day begins.
I’ve been trying to kill the lunch count since I started over a year ago. For a school with a 21st century mission, we shouldn’t have time for chicken sandwiches and lunch counts. My entry plan included a daily bulletin packed with more important information than you could shake a stick. There had to be more efficient ways to determine if the children wanted eggplant parmesan or rice so we could get on with saving the planet.
But of course, any leader worth his or her salt should know what not to overlook. Or dismiss.
Of all the systems changes and trends and grinding turnover, the lunch count, as inane and arcane as it seemed, had been in place since the school started in 1960. It had become, literally, an immovable feast. It was more than meatloaf. It was a time to connect, to slow down, to savor a few seconds of the day to think about the basic human need for nourishment. It was wellness before such a word became chic. It set the tone for the day.
Reading the report from the last accreditation was like dusting of an Egyptian papyrus. None of the names, initiatives, or projects were familiar. Everything had changed. And this was only five years ago.
Flipping through the report, all I could think about was all of the hard work that had gone for naught. All of the curriculum teams, the MAP benchmarks, the advisory programs, the new systems that were already defunct. Everything had drifted away like an ancient civilization.
It made me think about how much the constant reinvention and starting over held schools back. New Heads bringing new strategic plans and visions. New teachers coming and going with their suitcase curriculum. New boards bringing new priorities. And new IT personnel. Don’t get me started on what that does to school culture.
Disruption seems like so much fun. It’s creative. It’s trendy. It’s liberating. But it’s routine that anchors us so that these things can happen. You don’t just start chipping away at the foundation. That’s literally destabilizing to the entire structure.
This is not an argument for status quo. There are a lot of horrible practices out there that continue just because “we’ve always done it that way.” This is not an anti change argument. It’s a call for recognizing the simple but important routines that must be preserved so that the organization can move forward rather than constantly starting from scratch.
So, if something works and isn’t breaking the culture, then why don’t we have the discipline to honor it and put our attention somewhere else? I’ve been in this business for 24 years and I still spend far too many minutes of my life on attendance policies. “Ritualize the mundane, make room for the brilliant,” is one of my favorite quotes.
So, yes, the lunch count drives me mad. It makes me think I’m in a one room school house in Saskatchewan in the 1800s.
But it’s going to stay because it is an important constant, a cultural cornerstone of a small school that, in spite of its growth spurts, needs to keep it roots strong so it can reach for the sky.
I’ll have the meatloaf, thank you. And of course, mashed potatoes.
So I just finished reading a truly fascinating book titled,Loonshots, by Safi Bahcall, which I highly recommend by the way, and that book coupled with a few recent experiences at school and in my personal life have got me thinking deeply about the law of unintended consequences. You hear people all the time saying things like, “wow, I didn’t see that coming”, or “you know, things never turn out the way you expect”, or “whoops, I didn’t really think about that”, and even after years of leading change initiatives in schools, and having to unpack plenty of decisions that didn’t turn out like I had planned throughout my life, I still get caught dealing with situations that I had no idea were coming my way…but don’t we all!
Bahcall tells a great story about when the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered by Bedouin shepherds in a desert cave near the Dead Sea in modern day Israel. The archaeologists offered to pay money to the shepherds for each new scrap of scroll that they found. Their idea and intention was solid and sound at first glance, but they didn’t anticipate the unintended consequence of the shepherds ripping up any full scrolls that they found into little tiny fragments to make more money…whoops. It’s a wonderful little reminder about the importance of thinking deeply and critically about the decisions that we make in schools or in life.
The beautiful and somewhat scary thing about life as we know it is that you really have no idea what is about to come your way. This realization, which I embraced years and years ago, has led me to a focused approach to living in the moment, and a carpe diem kind of mindset that grounds me in the here and now. That said, even though I gave up long ago trying to control the world around me, I have gotten much better at planning ahead, and trying to identify consequences that are in my blind spot. In schools, particularly when rolling out a change initiative, it’s absolutely imperative that you take the time to think about and identify any negative, unintended consequence that might derail or delay your desired outcome. You’ll never absolutely be able to predict how something may eventually play out, but by purposeful planning and strategic thinking, you can help mitigate any undesired or unintended result.
Reading this book was an important reminder for me to slow down, to use the people I trust as thought partners when making important decisions, and to purposely plan time in meetings for strategic and systems thinking exercises. I’m sharing this with you because unwanted surprises are never fun, and I just want to remind you all to pause, take some time to think about the “what ifs”, and to get differing perspectives when making a decision that will ultimately impact other people. Yes live your life in the present, and absolutely seize the day, but also know that it never hurts to plan ahead. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.
Quote of the Week…The greatest thing that science teachers you is the law of unintended consequences- Ann Druyan
Often in leadership, it is difficult to keep those important connections that once motivated us to work in education. Meetings, software, cloud platforms, and numerous other tasks can easily overwhelm a schedule and make it difficult to connect with students in a meaningful way.
Here are some ideas and strategies I use to keep student connections strong.
Walk and Engage
Every day I plan a route to walk through the campus. While I walk, I make it a point to engage with students. I like to approach them, and often surprise them, and ask them what they are doing, what they are working on, what is “ridiculous” in math class, etc.
If they are playing games I put away the adult hat and ask them about the game. I want to know if it is challenging, does it teach anything, is it just a distraction, do they think they are addicted to playing, and so on.
Occasionally there is a comment or revelation that allows me to interject an idea or opportunity into their field of view. This casual approach helps me spot trends in the student community, get new ideas, and find students who might be looking for some additional non-academic opportunities.
Join a Club
To be honest, I normally start clubs, but it is a better strategy to join a club. As an administrator, weekly club meetings can be tough to facilitate. As a member and mentor, club meetings are manageable.
Joining a club as a novice who knows nothing is great. Students get to instruct the adult and take a few cheap shots when you make a mistake. All in good fun, but it really helps build the relationship when the equal footing is found.
Build a Student Support Team for Everything
It does not matter if you are an administrator in IT, college counseling, the library, etc. You can build a student support team. Identify students who have free periods, free time, and an interest in what your department is doing. Train these students to work with you and your team, and give them some space to make suggests. Eventually, they will be managing projects.
I have started supported teams from US Grade Level 5 and seen growth and success. Children can do amazing things, even if they refuse to do their homework.
Maintaining a solid foundation in any profession is important. Many in education chose that path because of the benefits of working with children. If you lose that foundation, you will lose your joy, and when that happens cafeteria food will taste much worse than it is.
In 1974, a young boy named Harold Whittles is about to experience his world in a new and astounding way. For the first five years of his life preceding this moment, Harold has not heard the sounds around him as he has been deaf since birth. This is about to change as technological advances have led to Harold’s meeting with a doctor to be fitted with a hearing aid.
The remarkable picture below captured the moment when Harold heard for the first time and was transported from a world of silence to one filled with seemingly countless different sounds emanating around him. Harold’s eyes are wide with astonishment and wonder.
It is this sense of wonder, conveyed in an emotional and extraordinary manner through Jack Bradley’s photo, that serves as a reminder of our role to nurture the natural curiosity in our students and their exploration to understand the world around them. Our students also remind us each day that we adults should never lose a child’s sense of awe and wonder.
As we prepare for our annual community Thanksgiving celebration, I was drawn back to Harold’s story and the importance of both gratitude and wonder. In the spirit of giving thanks, I would like to convey my deep levels of gratitude to be a member of a community dedicated to ensuring a learning environment that regularly leaves students and adults in a state of wonderment.
P.S. Thank you to our talented science teacher, Stephen Boyd, for introducing me to Harold’s story.