Category Archives: Stephen Dexter

Moving the Goalposts

Exactly…

That’s just about how it feels sometimes, especially at the beginning of the school year. Just when you think you have it all figured out (unless you are a new teacher or administrator), someone moves the goal posts. It could be your board, your administration, your department head. Even you! Speaking of things moving, anyone besides me notice that the ‘back to school sales’ have now crept into late July!? But I digress.

In the education world this is a phenomenon (moving goal posts, not shopping dates) that will only get stronger as our schools race to meet the demands of changing markets. We are expected to get more tech savvy, more individualized in our approach, less institutionalized and more dynamic to meet the needs of, well, let’s be honest, EVERYONE.

But what about its impact on the people chasing those goal posts? How can we work, nay, succeed in such an environment? In fact, what are those indicators of success anyway? Students getting into good colleges? A pat on the back from the Principal? Good IB or SAT scores? A bonus check from the board? I am still trying to figure this out.

What I do know is that great learning communities aren’t worried about the moving goalposts. They know they will never catch them and doing so will burn their people out. What they are focused on is what they do really well, what students need to be centered, well rounded people who will make the world a better place. Everything else is just, well, moving.

Check out this link for more on this topic. And hang in there. You’ve had a great summer and you’re doing important work.

Parc Aventure

We all need to build risk into our lives in order to grow
We all need to build risk into our lives in order to grow

No, that’s not a typo…Parc Aventure is a high ropes course in Aigle, Switzerland. Though nearly within view of our mountain village of Leysin, it’s about as physically distant (though not psychologically) as you can get from my day job.

Exactly.

Although we are often surprised by the things that happen at school on a daily basis, how many things really put us outside of our comfort zones so that we can really grow (and learn)? Preparation is the name of the game. Structure. Predictability.

My hope during these summer months is that you throw all of that out the window and go outside, WAY outside of your comfort zone. Maybe it will give you a little indication of what a new student feels like on the first day in your class. I am terrified of heights. So, I went on the high ropes course and walked between two trees, fifty metres off the ground, on a wobbly ladder.

Did you see Nik Wallenda walk across the Grand Canyon in the USA the other day WITHOUT a safety harness? If that doesn’t say third grade teacher I don’t know what does. And this is a guy who lost seven family members doing the same thing. He said, (I paraphrase), that either you die or you feel more alive than ever. Now we don’t want every day at work to be like that, but it isn’t so bad feeling more alive than ever from time to time.

Not that I’m encouraging you to put your lives at risk (Parc Aventure after all had safety harnesses), but get out there with that sweetness of summer at your fingertips and take a big risk that has absolutely nothing to do with your job and everything to do with embracing life. It will make you a better educator and a better leader.

See you on the zip line.

The same, but different…

graduates

This story popped up in the American news media last week. I watched it shortly after reading Bambi Betts’ blog posting on . It got me thinking about another institutional structure standing in the way of progress; the GPA sorting system. This feeds into the arcane assessment structures of many schools, which of course feeds into the grading system, the grade level sorting, and the ultimate institutional marker, the transcript. At South Medford High School in Oregon, 21 students were deemed worthy of valedictorian honors, leading many experts to display skepticism, watering down of standards, everyone gets a ribbon, dumbing down of the curriculum, etc.

What I found noteworthy was the disconnect on both sides of the issue. The Principal praised the students for “having the work ethic and training to get through college.” One of the students said “I know what I have accomplished and I know what others have accomplished. And we’ve all accomplished different things.”

Hmmm. This is going to cause problems. As schools start becoming less ‘institutional’ and more dynamic, student centered spaces for learning, these systems are going to break down. Having one or twenty one valedictorians is not the point. Accomplishing different things but ending up with the same ‘number’ is. What are we going to consider learning and how we are going to continue to feel the need to provide proof of such for those other institutions called ‘higher learning?’ After all, aren’t we still going to have to measure this stuff?

I definitely don’t have the answer. But if we are going to continue to move the conversation away from conformity and calculations of achievement based on chemistry grades and more toward “accomplishing different things” then it’s going to be a mess, albeit a very interesting one.

Typewriter

th

Nothing about “computer” says creativity. Although the things that apps can do are startling and digital media is now considered an art form, that word screams binary code. 1970. mainframe. Your father’s brown ford LTD.

But consider the word “typewriter.” It’s so old fashioned it’s cool. And it has the word ‘writer’ in it which warms my soul. I remember when I first flipped over to ‘keyboarding’ from ‘typing’ in the, let’s say, last century. At first it was okay. Easier on the fingers, yes. Of course the best function was ‘delete’ instead of reaching for the bottle of white out or replacing the correcto-ribbon. And then there was memory and storing everything on those cool floppy disks. They were actually kind of stiff, not sure why ‘floppy’ was used. In any case, I never turned back.

Then last week I saw a program on the news that said typewriters are making somewhat of a comeback. Similar to the turntable comeback I guess. Too much distraction with technology, too much digital noise standing in the way of a singular act of putting one needle on one vinyl and simply listening. The story talked about the beauty of the old machines, their engineering, their comfort, their utilitarianism. But what really struck me was their simplicity.

You typed. You wrote. Type writer.

When I write on my computer, I inevitably need to fact check something on Wikipedia, which inevitably leads to my going to a link for more information which makes me think of something else which leads to my Gmail which of course reminds me I needed to post that thing which brings me back to checking baseball scores and…you get the idea.

Type. Write. Schools are actually starting to bring these focus machines back. You sit. You think. You type. I found it actually less intimidating than having the cursor blink at me or a blue screen. Now of course, the biggest hurdle is that it is very uncool at Starbucks. I haven’t tried that yet but you never know, if I did it might get an agent to come over and ask to publish my story. It’s about a man who returns from the Peace Corps and loses his way. But that’s another story.

I love it when technology comes full circle and reminds us of how it got started and why we started using it in the first place. There will probably be an app soon that will only allow you to ‘type’ and will make the accompanying sound with each stroke of the key.

In the meantime, there’s a lot to be said for such elegant simplicity.

Type. Write.

Have a fulfilling end of the year and embrace your craft. You are making the world a better place.

Leapfrogging

frog_dynamic_lead_hero_image

I hated learning piano. I hated learning French. I loved learning to ride a bike. Billy Kopecky held onto the seat of my Huffy Thunder Road at the top of a hill and let go. I turned the wheel, went over the handle bars and wiped out. This was before the helmet days. It hurt, I got bloody. He said, “that was cool, let’s do it again.” Three years after I took my last piano lesson, I picked up a piece of “Fleetwood Mac” sheet music and taught myself to play some of my favorite tunes. Yes, I needed to know the notes but I didn’t need five years of Chopin and Mozart, which killed my desire to tickle another ivory. I played for love. I learned some of the things I needed to know for French in high school (drmrsvandertramp comes to mind), but actually learned it when I lived in a French speaking African village for three years. Of course we learn by experience. It’s the oldest educational principle on earth.

But there’s this leapfrogging thing that has caught my attention. It applies mainly to technology but I think it could apply to other things too, like language, bike riding and piano. Africa is not going through the various stages of technology development because it doesn’t have the time or the resources to do so. It’s jumping right into cell phones without landlines, fiber optic without DSL (lucky them) and numerous other innovations that they are, yes, ‘leapfrogging.’ How does this apply to education?

I was sitting at a table last week with my librarian and a teacher. We were developing a curriculum for digital literacy. The conversation became a bit strained when the topic of ‘skills’ came about and what students should be taught to do first. I couldn’t help but think of Chopin when I really wanted to play Fleetwood Mac. To cut the tension, I said that we should play to one another’s strengths and we could flip flop classes, I would help their students with expression and portfolio development and they with the more technical aspects of online research and skill. I didn’t tell them this, but I am planning to do very little with the technical side and get the students to focus on their own sense of creativity, expression, and focus. Leapfrogging. They aren’t going to learn a host of Google Apps BEFORE they can be part of a Google hangout. We’re just going to do it.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. You’re going to fly over the handle bars and get all bloodied. I can only think of Billy standing there and saying, “that was cool, let’s do it again.”

You Lose!

“Of course you don’t know. You don’t know because only I know. If you knew and I didn’t know, then you’d be teaching me instead of me teaching you – and for a student to be teaching his teacher is presumptuous and rude. Do I make myself clear?” – Mr. Turkentine (from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).

Willy Wonka’s rant.

“Why doesn’t he get it?”
“Because he broke the rules.”
“Rules? What rules? I didn’t know there were any rules?”

Many of us remember that Gene Wilder’s famous tirade on Charlie and his Uncle ended when Charlie returned the everlasting gobstopper and saved the day. He had been screamed at, told that everything he had worked for was lost, that he didn’t follow some random rules he wasn’t aware of, and worst of all, disappointed the man he admired most. How is it that Charlie came through in the clutch when all seemed lost? Why didn’t he just give up?

Do our student feel like Charlie at exam time? Do any of us act like Willy Wonka?

At this time of year, I cannot help but feel some of our students are going to feel like Charlie, especially our EAL (English as an Additional Language) learners. Too often, these summative evaluations (including IB exams) are about ‘losing.’ Where did these rules come from? How did I break them? What does that fine print say?

Is this how we want to end it? And in spite of it all, Charlie somehow managed to put the gobstopper back. Is that the value that our students are walking away with?

One of the hottest topics with our faculty is plagiarism. The conversation is ugly, occasionally pushing the limits on cultural sensitivity, and mostly ending without easy answers. Turkentine’s quote speaks volumes about we, the teachers as the holders of precious information, that must be held at all costs. The screaming Willy Wonka, holding his magnifying glass over the lengthy contract that Charlie broke.

Seriously?

If I as a teacher am creating something on which you can cheat, then I would argue that something is wrong. If we need to put children in an environment in which they have to sit still and demonstrate something, then it better be something that demonstrates that the child can, dare I say, think. How can he or she cheat at that?

The good news is, when Charlie put the gobstopper back, he did it not because he learned something from Wonka or Turkentine, he did it because it was the right thing to do.

Of course, Charlie, you won.

Write makes Might

“We all live with the objective of being happy, our lives are all different and yet the same.” (A. Frank)

I waited in line for two hours in the rain with my family this past weekend in Amsterdam to see Anne Frank’s House. The line stretched all the way around the corner and down the block. It was phenomenal. Even after all these years. What was that about? There are monuments all around the world to people who have suffered and sacrificed. Why was this one so special? Why did people stand in line so long?

My daughter posing with her own diary at Anne Frank's statue
My daughter posing with her own diary at Anne Frank’s statue

After I got over the dark, narrow stairs, the moving bookcase, the tiny, cramped corners, the shaded windows, I began focusing not so much on the physical evidence of her suffering, but the psychological achievement of her writing. Of course, it is the diary that became famous for obvious reasons. A transcript of childhood sprinkled with the hopes and dreams of a child laced with the fears and anxieties that no child, nor human, should ever experience but on far too many occasions still do. What made it pertinent, I guess, was that my six year old daughter was there with me and I can only imagine how she would have come to terms as a person in that situation. Would she have written her thoughts in the way that Anne did? Would she have developed any coping mechanism if she were shut off from the world in such a way?

“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” (A. Frank)

In a video at the end of the exhibit (Anne’s father Otto actually lived until 1980 and died in Basel), he says, “What I learned most of all from this experience was that you as a parent can never really know your child even though you think you do.” In spite of all the time together, in that space, over years, to imagine that your child’s experience, learning, and expression can still be so elusive, a voice so independent and even unnoticeable that a parent may not recognize it, I found fascinating.

My walk away? There are few things more valuable in the human experience than the desire to express, and the lengths to which a person, even in perilous danger, will go to carry that out. I left that day, watching my daughter clutching her diary in the rain, hoping that in spite of what might be happening at school and in spite of my flawed parenting, that she never, ever lose that spirit that burned in Anne for so long and has given the rest of us hope.

Write the Speech

SJobs giving speech

We often talk of how important reflection is in our work. But did you ever write “The Speech?” Have you ever sat down for an hour or two, preferably with your favorite coffee mug close by, and committed it to paper? I’m not asking you to write anything like Randy Pausch did several years back when he was dying of cancer, but it’s something that is inside each one of you, and needs to come out. There’s the “If I ran this place this is how it would work” speech, the emotional “death of a colleague or student” speech and a wide selection of personal themes depending all on your mood, your message, and what you need to share. Whatever speaks to you. My favorite is the “final speech,” the last lecture in its purest form, a look back on all that you’ve done, tried to do, succeeded at, failed at, and hoped for. I visualize my colleagues and students while I write it to gauge their reactions. The things I thought were funny, the things I learned from, the stuff that I wish I could change but cannot, the people I needed to thank. But mostly, the feelings and reflections on what happened over the past four years.

It was harder than I thought. There are things people have said that you want to correct, actions you’ve taken that you want to clarify, people you’ve hurt with whom you want to make amends, students who inspired you who you want to thank. Giving credit where credit was due. Opening yourself up to criticism, judgment, observation. Stephen Barkley, a lecturer and teacher trainer, said at the April ECIS Conference in Berlin that “teaching is a team sport and a public act.” It was astonishing to hear it put in such a way. When do we ever express that feeling? So, I imagined my audience of peers and colleagues as I wrote, some shifting uncomfortably in their seats, some smiling with acknowledgement, some maybe even puzzled. But when I finished it felt cathartic. There it was. Four years of work. The goods, bads and the uglies. What I learned from it, what I hoped to take away, and what I even regretted. All in the context of hoping that I made a difference.

If you cry at least once while you do this, you’re on the right track. Get writing.

“I appreciate you in advance”

LAS students show appreciation
LAS students show appreciation

Listening to NPR podcasts is one of the ways I keep my toes in my past American life. In fact, “This American Life” is one of my favorites. I recently listened to a February story about Harper High School in Chicago’s South Side and its culture of violence. 29 students current or former were shot this past year and 8 died. One person in the story said if this happened in most parts of America even after one death there would have been panic followed by mourning followed by hopes it never happened again. At Harper, it has become a way of life.

What caught my attention was the Principal. Principal Leonetta Sanders. I have worked in violent and drug plagued schools. Not to the extent of Principal Sanders, but the traumatic experience as a dean of students came back to me all the same. During one point in the story, a social worker breaks down crying, not because she wasn’t accustomed to the job, but because as she said “You never know where it’s going to come from at any time and you cannot stop it.” That’s exactly how I felt.

What a far cry from the experience most of us have in international schools.

Principal Sanders is a hero to me. In the audio, she often complimented students or even disciplined them with the phrase, “I appreciate you in advance.” Reflecting on this comment, she went on to say one of the hardest things about her work is that you never know if what you did made a difference, made the students do better, made them make good decisions and make something of themselves. You just do the best you can and hope for the best.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. We never get to see that, do we?

Our students are highly transient. Maybe on occasion a famous alumni will come back to give a speech, thanking the school and possibly leaving a grant. Of course recent college grads filter through to see their favorite teachers. But past that, do we really know? Are we able to, like Steve Jobs, hold up that I-Phone and say, “This thing really works and it’s good and it’s going to change your life.” Not exactly. And yet we have to bring that passion, that hope, every day.

Well, I am going out on a limb. Principal Sanders, you ARE making the world better. You ARE making a difference. And I appreciate YOU in advance.

The Mission’s Position

If America’s President Kennedy had adopted the current school template in 1961 for declaring his mission to the moon, Neal Armstrong might never have had the opportunity to say he made a small step for man. There would have been inclusive statements about aerospace excellence in propulsion, broad declarations of lunar gravitational aptitude, and surely something about an individualized return to a home-like environment. But getting to the actual moon and back? Not so much.

His ambitious but simple statement said it all.

“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

I recently attended a conference that featured a session on school missions.
I found it informative and complex, the speakers well versed in the delivery of what a good mission should include. We all did our diligence and compared various statements, unpacking the good from the not so good. We had insight. We laughed at the hyperboles.

However, what grabbed me was the session’s introduction. The presenters showed a clip from Apple’s popular “Think Different” campaign in the 1990s that featured rebels, troublemakers, and non-conformists. Gandhi, Edison, Lennon, Robinson, Earhart to name a few. It was when they were still the upstarts, challenging the behemoths of IBM, Digital, and Microsoft.

And then we politely carried on about global citizenry and politically correct ambitions of academic excellence and earnestness. No one stepped across the lines. How could we? These things go on our web sites!

There was nothing wrong with the conversation. We had some laughs about the vagueness and language of the statements, trying to be all things to all people while being none of them. One of the sample missions caught my attention. It aspired to educate homeless children. Everyone in the room found it so refreshing. So clear. Like putting a man on the moon by 1970.

I felt like asking the presenters how they thought the characters featured in the opening video clip would have participated in our conversation. Would John Lennon have sat patiently while we debated the meaning of global citizenship? I pictured him doodling on a piece of paper, distracted with boredom, and then looking up through his round spectacles, in a Liverpool accent asking us what the students thought we did with them all day.

The great ones, the game changers always seem to do what they do not because of but in spite of the institutions around them. We all know about the famous Harvard dropouts and the other failures that changed the world. They didn’t have patience for the conformity of learning. What they had was unlimited creativity, a lack of patience and a hunger for something else. This is bad news for the school mission statement. To be fair, it was a big institution that put Armstrong up there, and the rest of Kennedy’s speech on that day was quite verbose, sometimes bureaucratic, and even uninspirational. But what stuck with everyone, and what actually got accomplished, was the part that was clear, coherent, and committed.

So, I rewrote our mission. It won’t appear on my school’s web site any time soon. But it stays on a post-it by my desk.

“Challenge each student to make the world a better place. Now.”