Friday, December 20, 2013

Exhausted Just In Time For The Holidays

This is going to be one of the more challenging blog entries of my "School Daily" experiment. It's not for a lack of topics; I'm eager to discuss how Accelerated Reader has helped create a culture of reading at our school or perhaps the new mission of our 7th grade English-Language Arts team to acquire ChromeBooks for their classroom or possibly the benefits of our school's behavioral support program, U-Turn, and the reasons behind its success. The truth of the matter is that today was the last day of school before our holiday break and I'm just exhausted, unsure if the words are going to come.

There hasn't been anything out of the ordinary at our school site over the past few weeks since the Thanksgiving holiday. No extra board meetings, nights out, or special projects to prepare. A lot of my days have been spent with students in and out of the office. In fact, I'd even say that the past three weeks have been rather productive and professionally satisfying -- our administrative team has helped address a few key student issues, our staff has been running through the 2013 finish line, and we're receiving more and more positive feedback from our student and parent community about the education and social experience our school provides. And yet for the past few days, building up to (and lasting beyond) today's final bell at 2:50 pm, my body and mind have become increasingly tired and achy.

To me, being an educator during the school year can feel like running one long marathon. From weeks before the start of school, you're planning and preparing for the upcoming first day of school. You look ahead to the schedule and eagerly anticipate the next three day weekend so you can catch up on your lesson plans, work emails, or professional development. These days off never let you get ahead; it's just to catch up.

The month of October arrives and seems to last no less than eighty days. From there, it's three more weeks until the glorious Thanksgiving Break where you have a slightly longer time to recharge and reboot for the mad dash of December. Finally, today arrives and the bell rings to signify the end of school. What educators truly need is a week in Hawaii on the beach, quietly reading their favorite novel as they sometimes doze off throughout the afternoon. Instead, this holiday vacation arrives with long distance traveling, stressful long lines to pick up the last minute holiday gift, and more time with one's in laws. At some point we realize that we only have a few days left to finish all of our holiday projects before returning to school in January to prepare for the six month sprint to the finish line.

Here's my advice for how to best survive and hopefully thrive over these next two weeks:

1) Unplug

Yes, you may be behind on your lesson plans or parent emails, but now is not the time. Use this break to completely separate yourself from all things school. Follow the advice you give your students: go play and enjoy the time.

2) Enjoy the family moments

Today, in our Leadership meeting, we asked one another what our favorite holiday tradition was. Almost every individual answer involved some silly family practice that brought a smile to the sharer's face. Realize that your family, whether your own or your in-laws, are positive conduits for different, non-school conversations. Share the silly stories from your classroom, but don't linger on the struggles.

3) Rest

And when you wake up, rest some more. Enjoy sleeping in. Trade morning responsibilities with your spouse, parents, significant other, friend, anyone; this is your time to catch up and recharge your batteries. Don't let it go to waste.

4) Read

I have no less than four novels for fun, five books for professional development, and dozens of graphic novels next to my bed waiting to be read. I plan on spending a few afternoons enjoying these books and allowing my mind to wander a bit. Wherever you travel to, bring those books you've promised yourself you'd read but just haven't yet. This is the time to start a new chapter.

5) Do what you enjoy

Whether you enjoy day trips to wine country, family time at your local shopping mall, or catching up with friends, these are the moments to do what you enjoy. It's okay to ignore your lesson planning to have lunch at your favorite bistro. If you have a long list of "to-do" items, consider selecting those chores which would bring a sense of accomplishment. Two weeks is a long time; savor the moments to do what makes you happy.

While these may be my five suggestions, it's important to point out that what works for me may not be what works for you. While some may want to survive the next two weeks, hopefully many are instead looking to thrive during their vacation. The outlook can be different for everyone and that's ok. Figure out what you need to do to make the most of these upcoming moments and make it happen. The reason being, we're going to be back at school in sixteen short days and transitioning to the second half of the marathon we've put on pause. Gear up for the challenge but be sure to reboot during these pit stops we call the holidays.

After all, if you're an educator, you deserve the break. Happy holidays. See you in 2014.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Planning Ahead, One Class at a Time...

One of the best parts of the school year is when you take down the magnetic master schedule from the wall and begin working on what classes will be offered for the next school year. This reboot often happens in late February and then undergoes nothing short of radical changes over the next few months until finally settling a few before the start of school. However, like many schools in our district, we are growing over the next few years and are expecting a significant jump in enrollment (between 5 to 10% more students) next year. Given this expected increase, the assistant principal, school counselor, and I decided to start the process a bit early... as in today.

As previously mentioned, the master schedule is an animal to control, to maintain, and to finesse. An administrative team has to balance who is credentialed to teach what subjects, how many sections of each class we need per subject and per grade, and most importantly what's best for kids. Often, in the perfect world of scheduling, all three elements fuse together to form the masterpiece we call the finalized master schedule. Today, however, we just focused on three small goals:

1) Ending the year long "core teaming" pilot in 6th grade

For many years past, our 6th grade teachers were scheduled for two "core" subjects - English-Language Arts (ELA) and Science OR Math and Social Studies. While these seem like rather odd pairings, the system worked for our school, for our staff, and for our students. Nevertheless, with the impending transition to Common Core Standards, I asked our 6th grade teachers last year if they would have any interest in piloting a Social Studies - ELA core and Math - Science core. Of our eleven sections, eight teachers were eager to make the switch. 

And so, these eight teachers have piloted these subject pairings for the 2013-14 school year. I've regularly spoken with each of them as well as our students and parents on what each interest group likes about the switch, what they would prefer in future years, and what concerns they may have over a permanent switch. Thus far, every conversation has been exceedingly positive about the pilot, enough so that we've decided to end the pilot and officially complete the transition for all of our 6th grade core sections. 

2) Trying our best to not have teachers on multiple teams

One of the more frequent concerns I hear from the teaching staff about the schedule is how some teachers have students on both grade level teams. I try to explain how the master schedule is set up and how it is nearly impossible to avoid without creating additional teams and ensuring that each team is as balanced as possible. I will get the usual head nods after my diatribe, and they're return to their original request: please don't have teachers on multiple teams.

If nothing else, I'm listening. And I'm trying to figure out a way to have as pure as teaming as possible for our teaching staff. They are right; it does make a huge difference in supporting the students if teachers aren't on multiple teams. We spend a lot of our weekly time focusing on collaboration and have seen great results from these efforts. If I truly support these collaborative moments as I repeatedly share with my staff that I do, it's my administrative duty to address this concern and try my best to fix the problem. Today, with our preliminary schedule, we have made great progress toward doing so. While it's just the 2014 master schedule 1.0, we would end up with three completely balanced 7th grade teams and two almost purely balanced 8th grade teams. This would be a huge improvement from our current year's schedule. Credit goes to the our amazing school counselor for her eye-opening suggestions that cleared the way for this early version to happen.

3) What's best for kids

Every Spring, we ask our students what electives they're interested in taking for the upcoming school year. With this input, we alter our elective offerings to best support our students' requests. Almost every students receives their "first choice" elective and for those who don't, they are guaranteed their "runner up" choice. When we move certain classes, whether it be intensive, double block periods or our semester/semester option, the first (and sometimes only) thought in our mind is what's best for the student. 

This isn't to say that we don't take teacher preferences and teaching requests into consideration. If there's an opening at a certain grade level and I have a current teacher interested in making the switch, I'm definitely open to the idea. If a staff member has an idea for a unique elective to add to our schedule, I look forward to discussing their vision for the class and hopefully adding it to our master schedule. It's important to note that both of these teacher-requested changes must align with what's best for kids. If not, it's unlikely to happen for the upcoming school year.

I'm quite impressed with how much we accomplished today in the short period of time allotted to a first draft of next year's master schedule. Based on this preliminary sketch, I'll begin my conversations with staff members, gauging how they feel about a small shift from their current assignment to what is being considered for the upcoming school year. We are still weeks, if not months, away from an official master schedule blueprint for 2014-15, but today we produced the bones of what should one day be the end result. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Eight Favorite Things

Today, I received a very unique holiday gift from my assistant principal. It actually was not just one gift, but an assortment of items. They were, in no particular order:

1) A sled

For the Holiday break, my wife and I will be taking our twin girls to Incline Village for five days of snow and hopefully a little relaxation. This is the first time our daughters will see snow in the United States. I add the clarifying location qualifier to the previous statement, as my wife and I adopted our daughters two years ago from Russia at the age of sixteen months. I have a feeling they "saw" a lot of snow in their orphanage in the town of Murom, five hours Southeast of Moscow. This journey will be a blog topic for another day, but seeing the sled brought a smile to my face. It will be a "first" for us as a family. Just a simple, beautiful gift.

2) Candy

There are only a few negatives about working at middle school, one of which is the accessibility to candy during the work day. I definitely have a sweet tooth. While I've had lengthy periods of time of perfect "no candy at work" behavior, I find myself struggling when there are Gummy Lifesavers or Tootsie Roll Pops available in the office. Just imagine the torture of cookies everywhere during the holiday season. It's not a good scene. Here, I was given two boxes of these two kinds of candy, enough to last me through the new year.

3) Panera French Baguette

Last year, I had a moment of weakness. It began with a lunch trip to Panera where I decided to purchase a french baguette for that evening's dinner at home with my wife. I brought the baguette into my office with my purchased salad and left it on my desk. As I returned to my office throughout the afternoon, I would break off a piece of the baguette and quickly devour it. Within an hour, the baguette was gone. I had eaten the whole thing. Eating a two foot baguette does wonders to your body while working in the parking lot after school. A few staff members asked why I wasn't feeling well. I shared the above baguette story and now this disturbing tale resurfaces every time I mention I'm going to Panera to grab lunch. "Don't forget your baguette!"

4) Forty One Cents

Early in the school year, we visit our 6th grade advanced math classrooms to explain a supplementary math class, this year available online, for those students interested in advancing to (the class formally known as) Algebra 1 in 7th grade. I explain, in great detail, that there are extra work demands if they choose to participate in this class. An over-scheduled student who just likes math may want to not participate in the online class. Instead, I explain to these eager eleven year old students that if they have a love of math, if they dream of equations at night, if their favorite squares are 25 and 625 because they have the original number in the same place values when squared, or if they intentionally spend fifty nine cents at stores just so their change will be a penny, a nickel, a dime, and a quarter (forty one cents), they should join the class. It's a bit over the top, intentionally so, as I hope to inspire those students who share my own love of math to take on the extra challenge during the school year.

5) Costco Gift Card

Where to begin with my love affair with Costco... While my visits have increased to 1-2X weekly with the addition of our twin girls, I've always enjoyed the Costco shopping experience. Described as an intentional "treasure hunt-like experience," I have spent many hours walking through the local Costco's and noticing all of the subtle differences. Once, on a road trip with my future wife from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, we stopped at every Costco along the way. We would grab a cart and sprint through the store. It probably was the best part of the trip. I spend a ridiculous amount of time at Costco and probably an even more disturbing amount of money. It's my Disneyland - the happiest place on Earth.

6) a $2 bill

Recently, all administrators in our district were asked what our favorite present was for the holiday season. The purpose of the question was to guess which "favorite gift" went with what administrators. Given that my birthday and the Winter holidays often overlapped in our family of six, one of the most consistent and appreciated gifts has been from my Aunt Shelley, a former school teacher, since retired, in San Diego. Ever since my early teens, my Aunt Shelley has been sending me anywhere from one to two dozen $2 bills. I believe we're past the twenty five year mark now. I've never spent any of them and one day will present my daughters (or nieces and nephews) with similar gifts. Today, as part of the multitude of gifts, there was a $2 bill.

7) 12 pack of Diet Soda

On my best days, I limit myself to just a few diet sodas during the school days. On the longer, perhaps more intense, school days, I've been known to come close to double digits. The double takes I get from my doctor and dentist when I share with them how much diet soda I drink tells me that it's something I need to one day curb. If they were to forget to remind me of the perils of drinking diet soda, I fortunately am reminded daily by my wife that I should be drinking water instead. And yes, while my doctor, my dentist, and especially my wife are right, some days there is nothing better than a cold diet soda as you walk the school campus.

These are all of my favorite things, as presented by my assistant principal. But that's not the purpose of this blog post. Actually, the message I've discovered in re-reading the above gifts is how essential it is to have a co-administrator who listens.

I had only briefly mentioned my upcoming holiday trip to Tahoe, of which I never thought about purchasing a sled for my daughters. It was a random day and a passing moment in her office when I expressed how awesome Gummy Lifesavers were. I don't even recall sharing the story of the baguette. During the visits to the 6th grade advanced math classes, she was just silently standing nearby as she learned about her new job. Having a Costco gift card just encourages an additional visit with my girls this weekend. The $2 was a short snippet from a weekend holiday gathering. I'm not even sure how she knew I was out of diet soda as of today.

So yes, these are all of my favorite things, but truly my 8th favorite thing would be the opportunity to be working along side such a talented administrator. Thank you, Mrs. Cathy Bailey, for joining the UMS team this year. You have been a blessing.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Today Stunk

Today just stunk.

Don't get me wrong... It was not a bad day to be at our middle school, but due to the Redwood City Sims Fire, our normal fresh at-the-base-of-the-mountain air had a metallic, acidic smell for most of the morning and early afternoon. It proved for one of our most unique days of the school year. 

The school day began like any other. After our weekly Team Leaders, I spent the rest of the pre-bell moments talking ChromeBooks with a staff member. Their goal is to have a class set of 32 ChromeBooks for their classroom. We brainstormed some ideas on how to make this idea happen. I spent some time working with my amazing administrative assistant (upgraded her iOS to 7.0.4 for her iPhone) until the district's manager of food service stopped by our desks. He informed us that something was wrong with the air outside. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, we had little information through conventional websites. Instead, I turned to Twitter to find about the fire up the freeway in Redwood City. While our students and staff were not necessarily in danger from the smell, it was not something that we felt our students should be exposed to.

With twenty minutes until the bell rang for brunch, our Leadership team gathered for a quick brainstorming session on what was best to do. We checked in with other schools within and outside of our district to see what their plans were. We also coordinated with the district office to gather advice and keep them updated. After doing so, we determined our first three choices to be (1) do nothing, (2) keep the kids in 2nd period, or (3) send them directly to 3rd period. None of these choices felt like the right option. We began to share out our opinions and together created a fourth (and eventual chosen) method for today's brunch. 

I would make an announcement and inform our students that we would be ringing the bell shortly. However, on a change from our usual procedures, students would need to grab their snack and then head to their third period class. This decision, our Leadership Team had discussed earlier, would come with some secondary effects. Students need a break to stretch, eat, and socialize. Additionally, our teachers need time to relax for a moment and perhaps a bio break as well. For the student issues, we kept the bells relatively on time so as to provide social moments within their third period class. For our teacher concerns, we divided up all of the classrooms and stopped by to relieve the staff member as necessary. Other teachers with third period prep even helped out! Somehow, someway, it all worked. 

My next step was to send out a PowerSchool Messenger email to all of our families. In my message, I shared: "(To our community members), Due to the Redwood City Sims Fire, we will be holding our PE classes indoors today. Additionally, during brunch, we encouraged our students to retrieve their food from their locker or cafeteria and then immediately transition to their third period classrooms. I know that there is much concern about this situation; rest assured that we are taking every precaution while ensuring as little disruption as possible to your child's school day. All the best, Todd Feinberg, Principal." I've received a dozen, unexpected emails, all positive, from parents in response to the above email. ((A quick takeaway among the chaos for me: always send out the parent email and / or phone call... If one parent has a (reasonable) concern, assume a hundred have the same question. Also, better to over-inform than to share less.))

While we had solved our brunch concern, the decision of what to do for lunch and our 930 students loomed near. We could have decided to just have a normal, everyday lunch at this point. The smell, while still present, was fading away. We were unsure of how to hold all of our students indoors for the lunch period. One thing was clear: we needed the help and support of our staff. 

Another announcement was made, this time just prior to the lunch bell. We informed our students that we would be opening up the gym and the computer rooms in addition to the usual cafeteria, game room, and library locations. I explained why we would not be outside during the lunch period, how I wanted to make sure that they all found a safe space to spend their lunch, and then suggested to our staff if they would be willing to open their classrooms during lunch to house any interest students. I said these words lightly as I try very hard to not cross any contractual "duty free" lines within the teachers' contract. I just hoped for the best.

The bell rang and our Leadership Team dispersed to the various corners of the campus to supervise our students. While we were somewhat overflowing with students in all of our communal spaces, I was taken aback at how many teachers had chosen to give up their lunch period, open their classroom doors, and invite in their students as well as their friends. This would not necessarily happen at every school. We could not have made today work without their support. 

At the end of the school day, I sent out the following email to our staff: "Hi all, just a quick note of thanks for your support today during brunch, at lunch, and tolerating my repeated announcements over the loud speaker. I think I used up all of my allotted interruptions for the year today. Thanks again for rolling with everything today. I have already received a good number of supportive, appreciative emails from parents for all of our efforts. For tomorrow, we will not be having a staff meeting. Let's use the time to enjoy the breakfast Special Ed is preparing in the staff room. I'll send out the MiaM (Meeting in a Memo) in the AM. Thanks again for your support today! Todd"

Today proved just how resourceful our school team can be when faced with a challenge. Today showed that our teaching staff will always rise to the occasion and support our students. Today had our entire staff working together to address with a truly unique, unpredictable problem. Today really did stink... but in a completely amazing way.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Top Five Reasons Why Your Student Didn't Do Their Homework

Last week, I was visiting our Semester / Semester Science classroom. Our "Semester / Semester" classroom currently pairs a special education teacher with a highly qualified, credentialed Science teacher. Here, 15-20 students receive a semester of the 8th grade Science curriculum; during 2nd semester, they'll take a semester of the 8th grade Social Studies curriculum. Many of these students have double-block intensive programs throughout the day and would not have room for both Science and Social Studies in their schedules. With the Semester / Semester program, these students are able to cover a breadth (and not necessarily the depth) of state standards and core curriculum. While there are hiccups with every program, the benefits of the Semester / Semester program are substantial, as many of these students could progress through middle school without ever having the opportunity to take a Science or Social Studies class.

During my visit to the classroom, I noticed one student not participating in the "Crash Test Dummies" lab. Every other student was paired up and enjoying seeing their vehicle race down the ramp and crash into the wall. This lone student sat at his desk with his head down and refusing to participate. I asked the teacher what was wrong. This student, it turns out, had not completed the pre-lab assignment and thus could not participate. This student is arguably one of the more intelligent students in the classroom, and I know this student wanted to participated in the lab. Something wasn't making sense.

Today, I met with the special education teacher from the Semester / Semester class and asked the question: Why hadn't this student completed his homework? Here are our five best guesses:

1) Homework happens in the afternoon.

Some students are exhausted after a full day of school. Having to sit down and complete additional handouts and assignments when they'd rather be reading, sleeping, or just being a kid is a challenge. Additionally, in the afternoons, our students are incredibly over-scheduled. They have basketball practice from 3-5, dinner from 5:30-6:30, cheer practice from 7-8:30, and then it's time to start their homework. More and more, I see students who lack free time in their schedule to truly be a teenager, much less the time to complete their homework in a timely fashion. How can we address the issue of our over-scheduled and exhausted teenagers?

2) Homework is boring

One of the first things any student will remark about their homework is how much they have. The second thing they'll say is how boring their homework is. It is becoming increasingly difficult to entertain our students during the class lessons, much less when they're on the own and asked to reinforce concepts from the school day. Many of our students comply and complete the homework that they may have little interest in actually doing. However, there are those disengaged students who see their assigned homework as pointless. Why spend time on these assignments when there is Minecraft just a few clicks away? How can we make homework a valued, entertaining part of our students' lives?

3) Homework can be hard. 

When homework is challenging for a student, they'll often give up rather than keep trying. Resiliency is something we work to build in students but many teenagers lack the ability to accept temporary failure and still continue to strive for success. I've seen students who don't completely understand the assignment prefer to avoid doing the work instead. Much homework these days require a student to think, ask questions, and then respond. Often, if there is a parent or other adult nearby for support, the student is more likely to complete their work. However, not every household has an adult available in the early evenings. Sometimes, without this additional support, a student will do their best to avoid the homework challenge. What can we offer our students to provide time and adequate support after school to address the difficulty they may find in their homework?

4) The student has special needs and/or a special set of circumstances.

There is a student at our school who has missed the most of the past month for valid medical reasons. It's been a struggle for them to complete their work. I've also found that after a long three day weekend, students with a struggling home life will return with little work completed and not be in place where they can even focus on school. Additionally, there are students with documented attention issues which make it glaringly difficult for them to focus on the lengthy homework assignment. This is just the top of the iceberg. Our students don't arrive at school unscathed from their at-home life events. They are deeply affected by what happens outside of the school, and some days we spend most of our time together helping put them back together again. Add in learning disabilities and turning in one's homework, perhaps logically, becomes one of the last things we need to address. As educators, what else can we do to support the mental health and special needs of all of our students?

5) The student doesn't have a great relationship with the teacher. 

One of the most important factors in whether or not a student will do their best is based upon their relationship with the classroom teacher. The teacher-student relationship doesn't have to mimic how best friends interact with one another. I would not recommend being facebook friends with your 8th grade students. Instead, the teacher needs to show true concern and care about the student. In turn, the student has to feel and also believe that the teacher is in support of their learning. If a student feels that the teacher doesn't care about them, they're more likely to not perform well in the teacher's classroom. If a student knows that the teacher will be there to support them if they fall short of the goal, you'll see teenagers outpacing what's expected of them. Simply put, the teacher-student relationship is everything. How can we, as administrators, help foster positive teacher-student relationships in the classroom and at our school site?

After compiling this list of reasons why students don't complete their homework, I'm actually surprised our students have the high homework turn-in rates that they do. It is infinitely more challenging these days to be a middle school students than it was twenty to thirty years ago during our teenage tenure. I find my role as a middle school principal to be one of support with our students and encouraging them to try, try again.

What do you find to be the reasons your students aren't turning in their homework? 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Deal Breakers: Location and Entitlement

In an earlier post, I wrote about how to best choose your administrative home. My strong beliefs in choosing one's school community wisely stems from a challenging administrative appointment I endured previously. While these events could have occurred at any school (and surely have), there were two distinct challenges in a previous district that I could never fully address on a professional manner.

The first challenge was simply the location of the school in relation to where I lived. Much like the old joke in the Real Estate business that asks what the three most important factors in valuing a house are, "location, location, location" was something that I just couldn't overcome. As someone who lived just a few blocks from their place of employment, I seemingly couldn't escape the responsibilities of my daily and then nightly professional life. When I would go to the dog park in the evening, I would often be peppered with questions from concerned parents about school issues. Occasionally, one of these parents would have a student who we had recently suspended. Often, these conversations were quite challenging as I simply just wanted to play fetch with my dog. These community members had a hard time separating the assistant principal role from the dog owner at the park status I wished for. Worse, there was more than a few parents who discovered where I lived and would stop by my home with work-centered questions. Often, these visits happened past 8 pm and on weekends. It reached a point where we would be hiding out in a back room some nights with the lights turned off, just to avoid the parade of concerned parents in our neighborhood.

Often, it was just by chance that we would end up in a conversation about the school. My wife worked at our feeder middle school and was quite recognizable as their school counselor. More than just a few times, we would be out to dinner locally and would end up mid-meal overhearing a loud conversation from the next table over about one of our schools. It was a challenge to enjoy one's meal when misinformation was being broadcasted about your school just a few feet away. Our weekly Costco trips turned into twenty questions by the luggage aisle with various parents and community members about certain staff members and how unjust their grading practices were. Worse, there were school conversations from patrons behind us at the movie theater, in line to get our car washed, and even a few times at a local post-dinner establishment when we were just trying to relax. We just couldn't escape the location of our schools.

These days, when I say to my wife how disappointed I am that I can't see my school families on weekends given my 20 minute commute, she refers me back to the above comments and reminds me just how intolerable the situation truly was.

The second challenge was the entitlement. Let me preface with saying that every school has some level of entitlement and it can actually be a healthy thing for your school. However, in some districts, there is often a challenge to balance the demands and expectations of the parents at one's school with what's best for the educational and social-emotional needs of all of your students. I've previously written about the vandalism to our school site and the unique parent conversations thereafter. Sadly, this kind of parental response was all too common during my tenure at this school. Parents seemed more interested in the final grade rather than a life lesson or educational journey their student could experience.

One example would be a plagiarism incident that was brought to my attention by the English department chair. A student had turned in to the teacher for their final draft an essay that had been cut and pasted from Wikipedia and one other website verbatim. This student did not even bother to take out the misnumbered footnotes from his paper nor change the different fonts from each of the sources into one common format. When I asked the teacher if the student had met any of the deadlines previous for rough draft submissions (our teachers would often scaffold these assignments), I was informed that the student had only turned in the one paper, as described above, on the final due date. It was one of the more blatant plagiarism incidents I had seen in my administrative career. The parents of this student disagreed.

During our 90 minute meeting about this incident, the parents attacked the Academic Honesty Policy of the school (which had been written by students for students), disagreed with the grade the student would receive on the paper, and maintained that their student had not plagiarized at all. You see, they informed us that their student had turned in their rough draft by mistake on the final due date. While it felt odd that a student's rough draft would be copied directly from two websites, I asked if they had a copy of the true final paper with them. They said they did not. I asked them if they could produce the final copy upon arriving home. They said they could not. I asked if they could send it in within a few hours. Again, they said this would not be possible. Instead, they resorted to name calling, verbally assaulting the teacher about their treatment of children and threatened to take it further up the chain of command. And so they did, all the way to the district office level. The most unbelievable part of the story is not the blind defending of the student by the parents but how common these conversations were with our parent community in regard to their students' behaviors.

These may not be your deal breakers but similar ones exist for every administrator I've ever met. When I begin my search for my next administrative appointment (which I hope is not any time soon), I'll be asking certain questions to avoid such unnecessarily challenges. After all, as I say to our students on a regular basis, school is hard enough without making it more complicated. For me, enjoying how I spend my days is very important. Having a school community that works together on school issues while still respecting my out-of-school time is a blessing. Working with parents on student discipline incidents that can truly be a learning experience for their student is quite refreshing. Not every interaction is necessarily perfect, but I've seen the other side and I'll do my best to choose my school community wisely in the future.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Visiting Delegation from Shanghai was Gnome'd Today

Today was an amazing day. Here's why:

Just a few short weeks ago, we were contacted by a spokesperson for a group of 5-10 educators from the Shanghai Pudong Institute of Education Development. Their delegation would be arriving in the Bay Area in a few weeks and would we be interested in hosting them one morning at our school. Without hesitation, we said "yes" and began to create a schedule to best display our students' and teachers' talents. While the schedule changed substantially over the next few weeks, today was the day they were to arrive at 9 am and spend the next 2-3 hours at our site.

Fast forwarding to today, I felt unprepared for their arrival. I will fully admit that my administrative talents, whatever they may include, do not cover beautifying the staff room nor acquiring gifts for visiting delegations. In fact, my administrative team gave me the sole task of bringing Krispy Kreme donuts to school today. While I'm proud to say I accomplished this task, I did not think ahead to prepare our staff room for our visitors. As I dropped off the donuts, I walked back into the staff room and was instantly amazed. The staff room had been cleaned, redone for the upcoming festive holidays, and organized for the day's events. My amazing co-worker and administrative assistant, Kathy, had prepared the communal space after her work hours yesterday. Somehow, she knew that it needed to be done and made it happen. Kathy is an amazing co-worker and we're blessed to have her at our site. Her efforts set the right tone for the entire day, showing how one person truly can make a difference.

Our distinguished guests arrived promptly at 9 am and were ushered into our now-beautified staff room for donuts and tea. As we introduced ourselves and began to explain the history and current status of our award-winning middle school, they interrupted and explained that they first wanted to give us a gift for allowing their visit. I will admit that I was somewhat taken aback by their generosity and at the same time upset with my lack of preparedness to response in kind. Our assistant principal and one of our classroom teachers understood the situation and quickly worked with our activities director to prepare our school leadership shirts for each of the visitors. I was so thankful for my team's quick response and thoughtfulness. I also thought to myself that I spend my days with such complementary personalities and kind individuals. The visiting educators were so impressed with our gift and truly seemed thankful of the exchange.

We met for the first half of second period as a group, explaining more about our school community and culture. The delegation asked the most interesting questions, showing that their "problems" at their school site are very similar to our daily concerns at our middle school.

  • "What do you do for the most talented students at your school? How do you support them outside of the classroom?"
  • "How did you and how do you attract and keep the best teachers for your school?"
  • "When do your teachers have time to plan and to discuss students?"
  • "What data and assessments do you use to know your students have made progress in their studies?"

To help with the conversation, all of our 7th and 8th grade Science teachers spent their prep period today in the staff meeting. For those of you not involved in education, a teacher's prep period is the time they have during the school day to plan, prepare, grade, clean, organize, schedule, call, email, and more. It's a (rightfully so) sacred time that I try to not interfere upon, knowing how valuable this time was to me during my classroom days. We asked for their support today and every Science teacher showed. I can't say I was "amazed" necessarily as they're an amazing group of educators in their own right, but I was very appreciative of their willingness to spend these precious moments with our visitors today. They were joined by two 6th grade teachers, one of whom was "off the clock" during 2nd period, and arrived early on campus to assist with the visit.

From here, we spent the remainder of the visit in classrooms, observing our staff in the midst of lesson delivery. I saw Jeopardy review and lab hypothesis creating in 7th grade Science, Chromebook introductions in 7th grade English, annotating text and summarizing articles in 6th grade Social Studies, and "pull toy" creation in Project Lead The Way. So many students were engaged in the class activities and all of the classrooms had a healthy chatter level with students collaborating with other students about what they were doing, learning, and reviewing. Outside the classroom, students were transitioning from the classroom to the computer lab across campus. They walked in a semi-straight line, quietly through the quad so as to not disturb the other students in the open door classrooms.

As we returned to the office to say our good byes, the translator for the delegation asked me about a group of students huddled across the quad. They were practicing odd poses, many of them with their arms spread out as if to indicate a motion of some kind. As I began to reply, the escorting teacher knocked on a classroom door and then counted down from three. When they reached zero, each of the students yelled out a Spanish verb they had learned (and were mimicking during the countdown) and then proceeded to put the palms together, over their head, yell out "You've been Gnome'd!" and then ran back toward their classroom. Imagine trying to explain that a Spanish class leaves their room, travels across campus to another classroom, strikes a silly "verb pose," yells out the verb and "You've been Gnome'd" and then runs back toward their original classroom. I tried my best but couldn't help and laugh at the silliness of it all. Only in middle school, I said. I have a feeling that a lot of the conversation may have been lost in translation.

And of course the Spanish class saw the delegation and admin team walking back to the office. They sped up their pace, garnered our attention, and then proceeded to "Gnome" the visiting Shanghai delegation as well. It was later shared with me by the translator that they were honored to have been part of the exercise and loved our school culture and community. I also suspect it was their first time they've been "Gnome'd."

It was the perfect ending the our morning. More pictures were taken between the groups and they left to their next school visitation. It's a day that couldn't have been so successful with the efforts of our administrative staff and amazing teachers, those who participated in the staff room as well as all of the classrooms we visited. It makes for a long day, one that isn't over as we have the CLMS Teacher of the Year Dinner to honor our very own nominated Beth Shaw tonight, but does provide a welcome reminder of how amazingly lucky I am to work with this staff and school community. It was a truly amazing day.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Only Nine Months to High School...

One of the most essential parts of a middle school educator's job is to best prepare their students for high school. Much of this preparation takes place in the classroom. A significant part takes place in school-related activities before, during, and after the school day. What many students and their parents may not realize is that a key element of a successful high school career begins with a thorough, well-prepared articulation between the current feeder middle school and eventual high school administrative teams. Today, almost nine months before our eighth graders arrive at the local high school as re-designated freshmen, we held our now-annual articulation meeting between the two local high schools and their three main feeder schools, of which we are one.

The meeting was held locally at the local high school. I find this decision to be somewhat of a blessing as given the hectic nature of a middle school administrator's day, it is rare that we have the opportunity to venture off campus during the work day. Thus, it was quite refreshing to spend a few minutes at our local high school and reconnect with some of our former students. These meetings also provide the opportunity to catch up and share stories with fellow local administrators and counselors, an important and usually overlooked aspect of our professional development. 

The purpose of the meeting is to calendar specific registration events for the upcoming semester for our eighth grade students and their parents as well as to discuss how effective the transition was for last year for the current ninth graders. From here, we agree upon various deadlines and consider possible changes to past practices. Not surprisingly, these conversations were quite professional and productive. I believe the high school staff is quite pleased with the work we do with the students we send them and likewise we appreciate the supports they provide at the high school level for our alumni. 

Having worked previously as a high school administrator, I will admit that the high schools often drive the decisions made at their feeder middle schools. After all, when the local high school brought Project Lead The Way to their campus, we followed suit just two years later. If they were to eliminate Spanish as a world language (which thankfully isn't even being considered not should it be), we would have to re-examine if we wanted to make a similar change on our campus. Aware of these common themes, I was surprised when the high school repeatedly asked for our input and support on their current practices. They wanted to know what we felt would work well. I sensed that they realized we knew our students the best up to this point, and they wanted to rely on our input to best serve them moving forward.

Tentative dates were set for parent nights, class schedule choices, and various placement tests. Looking at our successful 8th grade special education meetings with the high school teams in early March, we explored holding similar meetings for any suspected non-graduates (sadly, there are usually 1-3 students a year who do not average a 1.5 GPA in 8th grade, the district requirement to participate in the promotion ceremony) as well as for our 504 students. We've already put a date on the calendar to continue the articulation conversation with our local high school's counseling staff. One of the benefits of starting the articulation process early is the benefits of a not-completely-jam-packed calendar that we often see after the February break.

The meeting lasted just over an hour. I spent an extra 5-10 minutes connecting with some former students found scattered across the high school campus. From there, I walked back to our middle school's campus and reflected on how positive and upbeat the articulation meeting was. After spending three years with our students, I want to be certain that they're matriculating into a learning environment as safe and rigorous as the community we've built at our school. Meeting the administrative team and listening to their thought-out plan to best guide our students' for the next four years is not only refreshing but also reassuring that our students will be in good hands. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Making a Student Connection in 20 Minutes

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I took a chance with our Team Leaders. Since then, I've been contemplating how to once again try something different with our Team Leaders group. Partly inspired by my former co-administrator's (and now Palo Alto High School principal) decision to bring her own quasi-team leader group to Texas for the Learning Forward conference, I want to transform our Team Leaders into a different style of group.

As previously mentioned in the post linked above, we have "Team Leaders" every Tuesday morning at 8:05 to 8:25. Each of our seven teams have a "teacher leader" who attends the Tuesday morning session. These teacher leaders are provided with information about the Wednesday 8:05 to 8:35 Staff Collaboration and then lead the Team Collaboration from 8:35 to 9:10 in their respective groupings. While in past years, we've solely covered Wednesday's Meeting in a Memo at our Tuesday Team Leaders and I've become increasingly frustrated with the seemingly repetitive nature of these meetings. Truthfully, I feel like I'm wasting the collective genius of my teacher leaders by merely repeating information they'll hear the next day.

So last week I cancelled the Team Leaders meeting. Instead, I invited each of them to the Team Leader Challenge (TLC).

Here, I presented a shared Google doc and asked that each of them filled out the Google doc before the following Team Leaders' meeting. I explained that instead of meeting in Team Leaders on 12/3 at 8:05 to 8:25, each team leader would spend time outside of their class schedule with one individual student of their choosing in an effort to build/strengthen the student-teacher relationship as well as the student's connection to our middle school. My goal was to displace the time from Team Leaders to an opportunity for a student to have an extra connection with a staff member. Within the Google doc, I provided various examples of what their student connection could look like... Perhaps before school, they could schedule a mini breakfast for a student with twenty minutes of conversation and care... Or they could invite a student to walk the track with them during brunch to chat about class, their favorite novel, or any other interested topic... Or maybe they work directly with a student on their homework after school and find moments to check in with them about how their school year is going... I intentionally provided examples of student-teacher interactions that already occur within our school day, so as to not challenge our Team Leaders with the seemingly odd request for the week. Even with what I felt was a soft and gentle assignment, I was worried with what the response would be.

Over the week, I checked in with a few Team Leaders about their homework. One staff member said they loved the idea and had an incredible time over bagels with their chosen student. Our assistant principal enjoyed getting to spend a little more time with a student who has been bubbling behaviorally in recent weeks, finding out that the student is struggling with the content in their math class. One Team Leader admitted to be slightly frustrated with the assignment at first but understood that there was a higher purpose to the exercise, and thus was willing to participate in the assignment. Overall, it was a positively mixed feedback response.

Today, one by one, each Team Leader shared their twenty minute time with a student of their choosing. Each member of our Team Leaders had an incredible takeaway from their student conversation.

"My student struggles in school and yet looks forward to it every single day"

"He is looking for adults to have positive interactions with"

"She is an amazing ray of sunshine"

"My student reminded me of the amazing programs we have to escort them out of their comfort zones into safe, challenging opportunities."

"Middle school is an awkward time of growth -- don't lose sight of the positives"

"In a word, my student is just so happy"

"My student had an appointment midday and forced their grandpa to take them back to school for 6th period -- he wanted to be at school"

"They've moved twelve times in twelve years. I've moved once in my entire life."

And we ended with my sharing of the student I met with, the subject of which will be a future blog post. My student is one of the more challenging students at our school and yet one with possibility the most potential. My student didn't only lack the knowledge of what they wanted to be, but they lacked the passion to find out. It was a challenging ending to what I felt was a positive experiment, but not every interaction with a student is going to be striped unicorns and pretty roses. It was a solid conversation, just somewhat depressing on a student's failure to see their own potential that exists just past their self-built wall of challenges.

The bell rang and Team Leaders ended. Before we departed, I encouraged each of them to try the same exercise with their teams the following morning. As always, it was a soft, optional request but my hope is that they lead their teams through the exercise in a similar format as I've presented to them. After all, the purpose of the exercise wasn't just to spend twenty minutes with a student, getting to know one additional member of our student body. It's not that I don't value relationships (I believe I do), but my true goal was to embed leadership into our Team Leaders and have them lead a similar conversation amongst their teams. This process is not without risk, but I trust they will be successful. I'm also quite excited to hear the results. Fingers crossed.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sorry, The Internet is Down

Over the summer, our school district spent substantial funds to improve the wiring, wifi, and networking capabilities at our school. These updates were highly anticipated by both staff and students. Over the past two years, we have added iPads for every teacher, a second iMac computer lab, a ChromeBook cart holding 32 computers, a Project Lead The Way classroom with 32 high powered laptops, a third Read180 lab with 10 iMacs, a second Intensive math class with 10 thin clients, an additional 12 thin clients in various classrooms, and numerous other teacher classroom computers. Our networking needs and wifi capability were in need of substantial upgrades to both host these devices  and to prepare for future technological initiatives. We were very excited for the open roads on the school's digital highway. We didn't expect the gridlock. 

To say that the past semester has been a technicological challenge would be an understatement. This is not to knock the efforts of our tech team, both at the site and district. Everyone is working together to solve the issue. The DO purchased additional Aerohives. HR supported a 33% increase in hours for our school site tech guru as well as additional hours for personnel in the district tech department. I've sent numerous emails and participated in many tech meetings where we brainstormed solutions and solved some of the smaller concerns. That said, if you're a teacher in a classroom with 30 eager-to-learn middle school student and about to present a dynamic lesson that relies on a stable Internet connection, hearing "I'm sorry" and "we are working on these issues" by an administrator doesn't soften the blow nor erase the loss of instructional time. We ask our staff to implement Google tools for education and then suffer crash after crash, disconnect after disconnect. After a while, the staff begins to lose faith in the technology and faith in their administrators.

I don't think I ever truly understood our teachers' frustration until a recent staff collaboration. Here, I was finishing explaining the importance of gratitude when I switched gears to the main attraction: a video that would bring it all together as we pushed ahead toward the Thanksgiving break and beyond. We clicked on the video and received the dreaded failed internet connection icon. It turned out that our wifi signal had gone out and would not return. I did my best to maintain my composure as I began to explain what the video would have shown if the Internet had been working this morning. Our staff began to shift in their chairs; I felt like I was losing them. After admitting how frustrating it was to have this technological failure, a staff member remarks "imagine if you had 32 middle school kids in the room." They were right. It would be a nightmare. 

Since that morning, we, as a district, have continued to work on fixing our Internet issues. There have been some improvements but we are just aren't where we need to be, not as educators, not as twenty first century learners, and not as a school community. A recent hire of a chief technology educator for our district will bring some much needed support. Our teachers continue to be patient as they work with us to solve the issues instead raging against the machine. Our parents and students also remain supportive and interested at starting the conversation of what a 1:1 campus would look like. I too am excited for this eventual possibility but until we figure out this wifi walking stage, we aren't ready to run. 

Our teachers, with training, will be ready. 
Our students are clammorring for wifi hotspots and tech professional development. 
Our admin team is preparing and planning. 
Our district supports the work we're doing as well as where we want to go. 

All we need now is for the infrastructure to catch up.

Edit: Since this post has was published, I've received only positive feedback from our staff on their wireless connections. Many thanks to our IT department for continuing to look for ways to improve the wifi at our school. (12/13/2013)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Challenging Student

Every year, there's one student at our school who I immediately connect with. More often than not, this student has the following three characteristics: (1) extremely bright but does little school work, (2) regularly misbehaves in their classes, and (3) no matter how hard I try to connect with them, they still put up numerous walls of distrust that prevent any solid connection. Today, I spent time with this year's student and I think we may have had a breakthrough.

I first met this student last year as they arrived at our school mid year. Their departure from their previous school was never fully explained. As a mid year student, they slipped slightly under the radar for their first few weeks at our school. Shortly thereafter, as poor grades started to surface due to a lack of homework and classwork completion, this student made our team notes along with the parent-student-teacher meetings that followed. Somehow, while there were ups and downs throughout the rest of the year, they managed to sustain passing grades as the year came to a close.

Fast forwarding to this Fall, this student immediately became the concern of our teaching staff. Very little work was being completed in the classroom. More than just a few time outs were being spent outside the classroom throughout the day. The student was spending a few afternoons in the office, having been sent out for inappropriate behaviors. Their grades were quite low. Nothing seemed to be working.

I had met with the student a few times on my informal classroom and campus rounds. Words of encouragement were said but had little effect. Things were actually getting worse until a longer conversation was held in the assistant principal's office. It wasn't an easy chat to have but this student and I had what most would call a heart-to-heart moment. As we suspected, there were more than just a few layers to this child. Beyond the distrust and disinterest, there's a 12 year old kid who hasn't found his place at our school. I was sitting on the floor, looking at up at this student, asking for their help in their own success. I saw this student after school the following day and they were reading Divergent, a book I had given the student during our intense conversation. When I had given them the book, they said "wait, you're just giving me this book? I don't have to give it back?" Somehow, I doubt they had ever been given such a gift from an educator or perhaps any non-family member. It was a moment.

While I don't think we solved every problem in that conversation, the new few days were some of the best moments of this student's academic career. They began to turn in homework. They weren't sent out of any class. At lunch, they were acting appropriately with their peers. It was like everything was right with the world. Our conversation had made a difference. 

This lasted three school days.

At the end of the third day, this student was back to their old ways: missing homework assignments, daily behavioral issues, and general middle school defiance. I tried connecting again with the student but more walls had been built. I wasn't going to get through. It was time for the parent-student-principal conference.

I soon thereafter met with the student and their mother. While it's not uncommon for the principal at our school to take an active role in student-parent meetings, it was actually the parent asking for help at this moment. Using every bit of my five years of Spanish from my middle and high school years, I tried to mediate what turned into a parent-child argument about the issues occurring at home. It turned out that this student was struggling to behave appropriately home as well. I made some suggestions for the home (take out the television from their room, no video games during the week, homework at the kitchen table, etc) and the parent was very supportive. The student was not thrilled with the conversation but offered to work hard during the 2nd quarter with the agreement that they could earn back these privileges. All in all, a good meeting.

Again, this lasted three school days, if that.

Fast forward a few weeks and things had more than just fallen apart. We were at the crisis point. No consequence seemed to be working. This student was being escorted from 4th period to the office for lunch detention. They had been removed from homework center for inappropriate behavior. There was constant defiance of staff and the student's classroom responsibilities. Something needed to change.

So while this student was in the office for their third classroom suspension this week, I spent a few moments with them and the assistant principal. I asked the student if they liked being at our school. Surprisingly, I got a very quick and convincing "yes" from them. Knowing this, I then told the student a story of what happens with students who give up, who act out, and who don't want to be at our school. They go elsewhere. 

I paused. I let the words sink in. The student sat speechless. I suspect they wondered why I was willing to give up on them. After all, I had promised I never would, right? 

And I'm not. 

When I have a student who I've tried everything with, there's only one thing to do: try harder and try everything. 

I continued to tell the student of what their new school could like like, where I'll look to sending them. The student had a look of betrayal as I explained our next steps. The student began to negotiate on their future. "What if I do my work? What if I behave?" they asked. I responded by asking the student how I would ever be able to trust them again after seeing the faith I've placed in them fail after just a few days each time. The student tried their best to convince me but I refused to passively respond to their pleas. "I've heard this all before" I said. They asked what they could do to change my mind. I shrugged and left the room.

Honestly, I'm not sure what effect this conversation would have on the student. All I know is that as I passed by the conference room door and stole a glance at the student more than just a few times over the remainder of our 6th period. I saw one thing: a student working on their homework. Without any encouragement, prodding, or negotiating, this student spent the next 45 minutes working diligently on their work, showing more effort in this moment than the last few weeks combined.

I'm not suggesting that we've solved all of the pressing issues. It's going to take the counseling that we're providing, the constant care and compassion our staff is showing, and many more challenging conversations over the next few years. I just know that we're going to get there. I have one of these students every year and I've never had a failure yet. This is just going to take some time. It always does with the challenging student.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What's Your Cell Phone Policy?

During my before and after school moments with our middle school students, I often scan the various clusters of teenagers and see how they're interacting with one another. The typical observation has a group of half dozen students in a circle, many of them with white ear buds in their ears and cell phones in their hands. They're talking about the always-changing middle school social scene and often about the upcoming school day. As soon as the warning bell rings, cell phones are turned off and placed away in various backpacks, not to return until the end of the school day. Today, I asked our site council... why?

Why do we not allow our students to use their cell phones during the school day?

Some staff members permit students to use their cell phones as a substitute for a calculator. Others suggest their students take a picture of the daily homework instead of writing it down in their planner. Aside from these sparse moments, it's a strict "no cell phones allowed" policy during the school day.

So today our site council, comprised of two students, two parents, three teachers, and two administrators, discussed how successful our zero tolerance cell phone policy is working and attempted to answer the following question: "What would happen if students could use their cell phones during the school day, specifically at break and lunch?"

I was quite surprised with the consensus.

1. Sooner or later, cell phones will be allowed at all schools during break and lunch. 

Currently, at the high school we feed into, cell phone usage is allowed during passing periods, brunch, and lunch. During class, they're expected to be put away unless a teacher has given permission to use them for educational purposes. Eventually, many members of the site council admitted that cell phone technology is a tidal wave that we aren't going to be able to prevent and instead perhaps we should just enjoy the ride. Why shouldn't students be able to text a study buddy to see where they'd like to meet up? Is there a harm in them sending their parent an email about their after-school plans? If we want to teach digital responsibility, shouldn't we embrace student cell phone behaviors and use any poor student digital decisions as amazing, teachable moments?

2. When we ask our students to follow a different set of expectations than the adults, we are setting a double standard.

Personally, I'm tied to my cell phone throughout the day. Most days, I receive at least a few hundred emails. The only way to manage the flood of teacher requests, student behaviors, and parent questions is to answer these emails throughout the day. Given the spread out nature of our campus, I'm able to walk and respond everywhere I go by using my cell phone. Even at lunch as I pace through our inner and outer school quads, it's helpful to be able to use my cell phone to answer emails, post silly student events on twitter, and even occasionally check a few educational teaching websites for future professional development ideas. While I'm one of the worst "offenders" of cell phone usage among our staff, many of our teachers also embrace cell phone technology throughout the day. Why shouldn't we allow our students the same opportunities?

3. Everyone had a different opinion on what the outcome should be... 

I was very surprised at who supported the proposed policy change and who expressed much caution. I expected our parents and teachers to be very cautious about a possible allowance of cell phones during the school day. Instead, they were supportive, albeit reserved, of the possible change. One parent, who was very cautious of changing the current policy, admitted that they have their student call them during break time instead of using the office phone -- a clear violation of the current policy. The other parent believed that our students are quite responsible and would, for the most part, use the increased cell phone freedom appropriately. The three teachers were open to the idea but did question whether an 11 year old 6th grader was responsible enough to determine appropriate cell phone behaviors. That said, if we don't assist with the education of appropriate use, who will?

The most caution came from the students. This was the most surprising response of the meeting, as I expected our two leadership students to be doing cartwheels at the mere possibility of being allowed to use their cell phones during the school day. One student even cited how increased cell phone usage among children leads to fewer face-to-face interactions between peers, something that we want more, not less of, during middle school. As the students continued to brainstorm about the idea, they became increasingly excited about the possibility of relaxed cell phone usage rules. One of the ideas they liked was a "cell phone Friday" as a trial run during an upcoming week. We have amazing students...

In the end, I really believe that we need to focus on appropriate technology usage rather than cell phone prevention. The skills we can teach our students about using their technology as a kind, digital citizen will benefit them during non-school hours, a period of time they already have unfiltered usage of their cell phones. If we spend time on educating our students on "best digital interactions," they'll take these lessons with them to high school and beyond.

Middle school is a time for mistakes with the hope that the students learn from any possible poor choices. If our school adopted a more permissible cell phone policy and students abused the generosity of the situation (which some surely will), there's no better place to have a safe conversation about their poor judgment and for them to understand what the correct choice should have been and hopefully will be during their next digital opportunity.

This was just the first conversation about cell phone usage and there are many, many more chats to have. That said, it's an interesting topic to have with your site council and even professionally reflect upon how we best serve our middle school students at our school sites.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why I Love Middle School

It's become a tradition for the December Home and School Club meeting to be slightly shorter than our usual length and instead spend the second half of the evening at a local dining establishment to spend time and recognize the hard work of our amazing parents. I enjoy these moments of relaxation and conversation with our students' parents and look forward to these evenings as a chance to "not talk shop" (and we truly didn't) but just get to know more about our dedicated parent council. We really have a very hard-working, inclusive, and supportive Home and School Club parent group for the 2013-14 school year, and perhaps it's no suprise that we see these same positive qualities in their children during the school day.

Amid a flurry of topics and conversations, one question that gave me pause was what I enjoyed most of being a middle school principal. I was asked this question after a lengthy discussion about Thanksgiving Break, our families, being married, and the option of being a stay-at-home parent. Truthfully, I often wonder what it would be like to be a stay-at-home parent, a role my wife has filled for the past two years while on leave from her middle school counseling position. I did have the opportunity to be a stay-at-home parent for a few days over the Thanksgiving Break, of which my wife later reminded me that I seemed rather eager to return to school this past Monday morning. Setting aside this small sample size, what would I miss most about being a middle school principal if I were to instead choose to change careers and become a stay-at-home parent? What is it about being a middle school principal that I prefer instead?

1. The Students

Without question, I'd miss our students. While it's true that we are always happy as educators to see our students promote to high school at the end of eighth grade, the middle school years are a crucial segment of a student's educational, social, and emotional growth. We educators get to see every success, every slip, and every rebound during these formative moments of middle school. Ever since arriving four years ago at our school, I've been amazed at how polite and kind our students are, even when no one's watching. Yes, they are still middle school students, a category of individuals who often make mistakes and poor choices. However, as a whole, we have such talented and kind students, with whom we are very lucky to spend our days.

One example: tonight, at our Home and School Club dinner, a parent shared a conversation they'd had with their student. Together, they had viewed the film "Bully" and spoke about the poor choices some students made throughout the film. When the parent asked their student, "How often does this stuff happen at your school?", their student replied, "It really doesn't. We would never act this way. It just doesn't happen at our school." The parent says she prodded a little more, not necessarily believing this Pollyanna-type response. Their student maintained, over and over again, that it could never happen at our school. The parent shared this story with what I felt with a sense of both pride in having raised an amazing young adult (which they did) and appreciation for the hard work our staff does on a daily basis to maintain these high standards of kindness and positive behaviors. Truthfully, we have amazing students and they're definitely one of the things I'd miss most.

2. Magical Teaching Moments

The best parts of any school day are often the impromptu or invited visits into our teachers' classrooms. Like most K-12 schools throughout the United States, we are at an interesting time of transition from individual state standards into the new frontier of Common Core. One of the benefits of the change is the new opportunity for our teachers to slow down certain lessons, have more creative, teachable moments for their students, and once again be excited about new teaching opportunities to augment their daily lessons. At any given period throughout the school day, I have at least 30 different worlds to step into and be amazed.

- I can visit our ELA6 classroom the day before the Thanksgiving Holiday and see 30 students scattered across the room, silently reading challenging texts. These students don't even notice their principal sneaking into their classroom, sitting on the floor against the cabinets, and opening up the next school book club novel for 20 minutes of quiet reading.

-I can spend moments in our Spanish classroom, perplexed at how the classroom teacher somehow convinced one of our more at-risk 8th graders to not only participate in the class song but also wear an over-sized sombrero in doing so. Every student in the classroom belted out Spanish phrases, mostly in tune, proud of their accomplishments. Students who have been dismissed from other schools are in this class, overwhelmed by the kindness of their peers and teacher, and yet still participating and growing.

-I can marvel at our new embedded honors ELA8 classes. Here, students themselves can self-select to participate in a more rigorous curriculum and higher expectations throughout each quarter. Where else could I see professionals willing to differentiate upwards, rearranging their entire weekly format to accommodate the Friday embedded groupings, and encouraging certain students who wouldn't normally consider themselves an "honors student" to give the more demanding course work a try... These are things that make me proud to be an educator.

And these are just some of the classroom moments I'd miss. Whether it's a Geography Bee, the chapter Jeopardy reviews, or the engagement of the Project Lead The Way class, every school day is an opportunity to be impressed and amazed at the hard work and dedication of our staff.

3. The Silliness.  

Middle School is just the silliest place I've ever spent my days. It's a collection of comedies and memorable moments. Today, during a somewhat long day filled with more than just a few meetings, two students arrived in the office at the end of their PE period. They seemed to be arguing with each other. I asked one of the students what they were so furiously saying to one another. He responded with words that can only come from the mouth of a middle school student: "Oh, we heard someone say 'tiny turtle' on our way to the office so we are saying 'tiny turtle' to each other in as many different ways as we could. Some loud, some soft, some in different voices. We're not mad at each other. We just think the words "tiny turtle" sounds silly." After I thought about it for a few moments, I happened to agree. Only in middle school.

And only in middle school would the principal be engaged in what the opposing party (an 8th grade boy) is calling a "battle of wits" but truly is a contest to see who can sneak up on the other and trick the other individual into looking the wrong way from a tap on the shoulder. (side note: I am pleased to say that I am winning this "battle of wits"). This same student approached me yesterday and asked if I knew that "Movember" was over. I suspect he asked because of the increasingly out-of-control beard I'm playing host to. I asked what month it was now. He replied without missing a beat: "It's DANCEmber" and then he moon-walked away doing what I believe were dance moves with his arms. Where does a student feel comfortable enough with themselves and their peer relationships to dance backwards in front of the entire student body at lunch? Only in middle school.

There are just so many things I'd miss about our school if I were to make a change to being a stay-at-home parent. I know that there would be just as many amazing moments with my daughters, but it feels like I have the best of both words with weekdays at school and many evenings and weekends with my family. I should also point out that my wife suspects I'd go stir crazy if I were home for any long periods of time. She's probably right. Perhaps I'm just very fortunate to love being a middle school principal. No other job like it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Vacation is Good For the Educator's Soul

At some point in the previous year, the decision was made to make our school district's 2013-2014 calendar have a full week off for Thanksgiving. This means when you leave work on a Friday, you don't necessarily need to return until 10 days later. This was a new scheduling change for the school year and was not initially well received. Part of the reason for the early murmurs was having to start school a few days earlier or knowing that we'll have to end school a few days later into the Summer. While administrators are already back at school way before the official staff report-by date, I will go on record that if I complain about an extra two days at the end of the year, I'll stop and refer back to this blog entry... and how glorious having ten days off from work after the mad dash of October and early November can be.

For the ten day break, I made a few decisions on how to have the most relaxing, least stressful vacation possible.

1) Get Away

On somewhat of a last minute decision, I booked two nights at the Applewood Inn, located about 30 minutes west of Santa Rosa. With twin three year old daughters, my wife and I don't have the opportunity to get away (or as we often say "escape") from our daily routines. We scheduled kid coverage for the days we'd be away (split between our Au Pair and parents) and took off for wine country. There, we ate great food, walked around Healdsburg and Guerneville, read a few books (already have our next UMS Reads book Wonder completed), and just enjoyed the quiet. One thing that a middle school isn't during the day (and this is a good thing) is quiet, so the opportunity to listen to the silence of a sleepy town is a nice change of pace.

2) Walk Lots

In a future blog post, I'll talk about the revolutionary UP Band I'm using and how (and why) it has changed my life. Two of my daily goals are eight hours of sleep at night and 10,000 steps during the day. Over the course of those ten nights, I managed to sleep at least eight hours seven times. Two of the less-than-eight-hour nights were extremely close. It's amazing how refreshed one feels in the morning after a full eight hours of sleep. I've realized, after the push of October and early November, it's really nice to catch up on one's sleep to prepare for the December school push.

For my steps, I now have a 17-day streak of 10,000 daily steps or more. While on vacation, we ended up taking the long way around town, staying out a bit later to walk the streets back and forth, and on our first night, I spent 40 minutes in the parking lot, walking up and down the paved hill in order to get my 10,000 steps for the day. Despite the freezing weather, I felt amazingly successful and proud of my accomplishment, even though I surely looked ridiculous out in the parking lot that evening.

3) Family Time

After our vacation, I made every effort to spend as much time as possible with my daughters. They too will be a subject of a future blog post, probably more than one. We went to more parks than I could count. We walked around our neighborhood enough times that they began to lead the way. I think our Costco visits almost hit double digits (no, just kidding, only three times over the week off). After sometimes going three days with not seeing them due to work commitments, it was nothing short of glorious to wake them up first thing in the morning and again at the end of the day when they're falling asleep. One thing about toddlers is that the growth they'll experience in a week turns them into entirely different children -- and it's nothing short of amazing to watch the transformation. Spending these extra holiday moments with your family helps make those long nights at school that much easier.

4) Limit Work Emails

Ok, I didn't do so well with not answering work emails over the holiday break. I went in with a positive outlook, but part of my belief as a site administrator is that our staff and school community receives an email response in a timely fashion. I know there are pros and cons to this practice, but if I were the parent with what I felt was an urgent concern, I wouldn't want to wait 10 days for a response. For me, it's part of my professional expectations that as a  school administrator, I'll respond within 24-48 hours to an email... and usually it's within an hour. While this isn't always the healthiest option, occasionally a parent will respond with respectful kindness as one of our school community members did over the recent Thanksgiving holiday.

The first email from this parent was incredibly respectful and polite. They were inquiring about a possible elective change for their student for second semester. Their email began with the following line: "First and foremost, I would like to thank you for the high level of education my (student) is receiving at your school. (They are) thriving both academically and socially." When a parent starts an email with such kindness, I feel compelled to respond. The ending to the email was perhaps even better: "I realize that you are a very busy individual and have to balance the needs of hundreds of students, and their parents alike. So I do understand your challenges as well. Regardless, I do thank you for your time in this matter, and again complement you and your team on the fine work they have done at (your school)." Not only well written, but very complimentary as well.

The email was written at 1 pm on the first Saturday of vacation. I replied exactly two hours later with a 542 word reply (I counted), outlining every option and roadblock with their schedule request. I heard nothing for the next eight days until last night at 8:42 pm. I received a follow up email that said: "Again, thank you for your prompt response to my email -- I actually waited until after the holiday week so not to bother you during your time off." Their email ended with "I truly appreciate your time in the matter and thank you for your continued support for (my student's) growth and development."

Would I have received the same response if I had waited the full vacation break before responding? Yes, it's possible... but part of the culture at our school is that parents appreciate the quick reply and will be incredibly respectful of our staff's own personal time. And of course I followed up today with my staff about this student and was informed, perhaps to no surprise, that they are an amazingly talented, bright, compassionate young adult that we are very lucky to have at our school.

These four decisions helped me return to work today with a renewed outlook and rejuvenated mindset for the next three weeks of school prior to the holiday break. Having this time to get away, to walk, to spend time with my family, and occasionally limit my work emails is something that I'm quite thankful for. In fact, I'm already looking forward to next year's week long Thanksgiving break.

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