Sunday, May 17, 2015

An Opportunity To Bully

Two weeks ago, we, as a school staff, had one of our most challenging weeks of the year. Nothing was out of the ordinary, but the culmination of a few activities proved the breaking point for a few.

-Our students and parents were gearing up for the annual school play.
-Disneyland for our band and choir squads was upcoming.
-Mid Quarter Reports came due.
-It was the third week of block scheduling and SBAC testing.
-And many many more events that just added to the collective stress.

Our parent community, based on the increased number of emails I received, seemed to have their own concerns. I suspect their frustrations were passed along to their kids and thus back into the classroom each and every day for our teachers to progress through. And while our staff is well versed in maintaining the calm, it is inevitable, as human beings, that some of the frustration is passed back to the students and thus our parents. In speaking with our staff, we discussed the opportunity we have to "break the chain" and not allow the stress to fester. They did a great job and this past week was much improved.

Until Friday.

Friday was actually a really neat day. Our students were able to use their cell phones during brunch and lunch, a school first. Our parent community was very supportive of the idea, especially and even if they didn't necessarily agree with the concept. I'm excited to see where the conversation leads and how we can get ahead of the inevitable flood of technology our students will have and use regularly.

The bad news came in the form of an anonymous post from the previous Saturday on the website "greatschools" and it was just mean. Here it is in its entirety. Be warned, it's not nice:

Teachers here are very uninspiring. They aren't there to teach, they're there to supervise. Students are handed an assignment and they figure out how to complete it on their own. As for learned curriculum, students read a printed-out powerpoint or a textbook all by themselves. If they have a question that the teacher can't answer, the teacher shrugs it off and leaves the student to their own resources. Also, I'm going to specifically target the ELA Department. In 6th grade, the way students are taught to write is very rigid, structured, and it doesn't offer any room for creativity and flow. 7th grade - well, they don't teach anything remotely RELATED to English! They observe rotting french fries, party like Victorians, and create videos. But never, ever are they taught to write. And yet they are TESTED on writing skills at the end of each quarter! Overall, I'm shocked at what Union Middle School considers education. It doesn't prepare students for their future, and really, everything students do at school they could do at home, by themselves. I would be very careful if you plan on attending this school. 


Here's the truth. Our teachers are amazing. They are, as a collective group, one of the best staffs I'll ever be a part of. They're the opposite of uninspiring. When I'm in a down mood, I specifically visit a few UMS classrooms because I know I'll see top-notch teaching, kids loving to learn, and just inspiring learning leadership. Rare is the class session where kids are just reading a powerpoint or a textbook all by themselves. We have kids creating peer-lessons, leading their own learning, and becoming experts on tons of topics. I'm not saying that we have the "perfect" staff but I think we have a collection of adults who truly care about kids and are working toward enriching their learning experiences during their days in middle school

One of my former superintendents once said to me:
"Don't pay any mind to those who shoot out the back window as they drive away." 

From the sound of the post, it reads like a family who may not be returning for 8th grade and is unhappy with how their child's year has gone. As a site principal, I want to hear their concerns and address them as a staff. I would invite them into my office and give them as much time as they needed during their quasi-exit interview. However, this parent decided to broadcast their feelings to the world. The beauty of the Internet.

And they have a right to be upset and to leave a bad review. I wish they would rather want to discuss their concerns and see if we can make things better for their student and future students. I also want to acknowledge that we may just have to disagree about the Union Middle teaching staff. Where this parent crossed the line is their attack of our 7th grade ELA department and their curriculum.

Currently, in 7th grade, we have three fantastic teachers leading the charge. One of these teachers was the recent Emerging Educator for CUE. Another one of these teachers was a recent district-wide Teacher of the Year. The third teacher, just starting out in their teaching career, has also done a fantastic job with her students, using the same curriculum as her 7th grade ELA peers. As I've said publicly to anyone who will listen, I'll put our 7th and 8th grade ELA department up against any other 7th and 8th grade department in the entire state of California; I can guarantee that we've got the most innovative, most common core, most engaging curriculum and teacher-led instruction through student-led learning.

That's what makes their post so perplexing. They talked about the rotting french fries, a lesson that stems out of Chew on This and is perfectly overlapping with the Science 7 curriculum. They mentioned the Victorian party, an opportunity for students to dress in Victorian outfits and progress through various stations of self-directed learning. Video creation stems through the iMovies our students made through their Fierce Wonderings, a series of projects and lessons that is lauded by the edu-community as ground breaking and 21st century. Essentially, this parent pointed out amazing Common Core projects that our 7th grade ELA teachers have spent countless hours, evenings, and summer days perfecting. I'm very proud of the work they've done. And for those of you who care about test scores, our 7th grade ELA CST results had over 90% of our students in the proficient and advanced range. Simply put, these are some of the best teachers I'll ever meet.

I should also point out that I give many opportunities for feedback from our parent community. I send surveys, texts, emails, phone calls, and even entertain the occasional conversation during parking lot duty. I don't think any parent feels "unheard" at our school. And while there are times we may have to agree to disagree, I always value a community member's input on how to improve the work we do with our students.

That said, in the end, all you need is a dial-up connection and an ax to grind in today's digital age to post venomous comments about the hard work of today's educators. I appreciate what such websites like "greatschools" can bring to a school community, but giving individuals an opportunity to "type angry" and bully teachers seems unfair and unproductive. It's a shame how this parent chose to bully our staff with their anonymous, yet public comments. There are tons of opportunities in our daily practices to bully others; I just hope that frustrated community members can find a different way to share their concerns and comments. We wouldn't approve of our students acting this way; why does this website not only turn a blind eye to (but even encourage) adults and their bullying behaviors?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Cell Phones: School Policies, Game Changers, and Teachable Moments

One of my former students once shared with me that they believed their ability to use their cell phone during the school day was no different than their ability to breathe in oxygen. They said that not being able to use their cell phone made them feel like they were suffocating. They explained that they didn't necessarily need to use their cell phone during the school day and, if given permission, that they most likely still wouldn't. It was just the rule that our school had regarding not being allowed to use your cell phone during the school day felt like an imprisonment without oxygen for them.

At the time, I felt that the student was being a tad melodramatic about not being able to use their cell phone during the school day. After all, we all somehow survived without usage of a cell phone during the school day and we all turned out (relatively) okay. And then I stopped and thought about their perspective of where they were as a digital native and where they were headed in just a few short months as they promoted to 9th grade. Were we best serving them by mandating no cell phone usage during our lunch period? How would they react in three short months when they arrived on the high school campus without the necessarily skills on how to properly manage their screen time? Was their cell phone truly like oxygen to them? Was it an attached accessory that we, as an older generation, didn't fully understand their connection to?

These reflections brought me back over a decade to my days as a Dean of Students and also Assistant Principal at Ralston Middle School in Belmont, CA. There were very strict rules regarding iPods during these days; specifically, you weren't allowed to bring them to campus. If your iPod was seen or found, it would be confiscated and only returned to your parent. Looking part, I can't help but laugh at how silly this rule was.

The rule was founded in the belief that iPods were going to be a distraction throughout the school day. We wanted to encourage students to socialize before and after school, not listen to their latest Green Day or Blink-182 albums. We wanted students to be more aware of their surroundings and not unable to hear daily announcements or other urgent matters. We felt that some students would lose their iPods and this would translate into countless fruitless searches of locker rooms and playing fields. There was some concern that if students were bringing expensive devices to school, what would be do when a student made the poor choice to steal such items from a classmate. We had many what we felt to be valid reasons for not allowing iPods at school.

Then one day, everything changed. It was 2007 and the revolution went by the name of iPhone.

With this new bit of technology, students could listen to music on their phones. Students were allowed to have a cell phone at school, as long as it was put away during the school day. Now, however, students were listening to music before and after school. The iPhone was a complete game changer and we had to quickly rework our school policies to address this new technology.

Fast forward 8 years to present day. A quick observation of the school campus and an informal survey of our students has over 90% of our students in possession of a smart phone at school. Hundreds of students have one earbud in before and after school as they socialize with their friends. Even with permission to use their cell phones before and after the school day, I see more socialization during these times than I do at brunch and lunch. I'm beginning to wonder if our students socialize in a manner that is significantly different than how we adults did during our middle school days. Are we trying to force feed our students designated times to socialize as we would like them to, all the while not realizing that today's students socialization often centers around a piece of technology?

Nevertheless, we continue to ban cell phone usage during the school day. Almost every single day, there is an instance where a cell phone is confiscated by a staff member for making a "you've received a text message" sound. In over 90% of these cases, the text was sent by the student's parent, often with reminders for pick up later in the day, changes to the afternoon's schedule, or sometimes just a simple "I love you" from mother to son. These are the same parents who overwhelming do not want their students using their cell phones during the school day, don't forget.

The inability for our students to not use their cell phones have other frustrating byproducts for our staff throughout the day. When a parent drops off a lunch, project, or gym shoes for their student, our front office makes all-school announcements during our brunch and lunch periods. What if we instead informed the parents to just text their student during these times and we were able to avoid these needless interruptions?

Even further, what are we teaching our students when we impose rules that they will soon outgrow (just a few weeks for our 8th graders as they approach high school and the free-for-all that exists regarding cell phone usage at many high schools)? Are we providing the best guidance by simply prohibiting cell phone usage? As esteemed school administrator Erik Saibel shared in our #leadwild Voxer group, "24/7 control of kids doesn't teach them anything. It just makes them defenseless and directionless when "real life" comes around." I'm inclined to agree.

I've often shared with our incoming 6th grade parents that I believe middle school is the perfect time to make mistakes. Middle school, by its very nature, is a special society where every interaction with a student can lead to a worthwhile teachable moment. When a student is disrespectful toward a staff member at lunch, we bring the student in and talk about how to prevent such choices in the future. Yes, they still receive a consequence, but I think we're saving this student from making the same mistake three months down the road as a high school freshman.

Teenagers, by their nature, will gravitate to things we tell them not to do. When a student crosses through traffic on a busy thoroughfare on their way home from school, we speak with them the next day on making safer choices. When a high school freshman is presented with their first opportunity to drink alcohol, I want them educated on how to best handle the situation. We need to have their conversations with our students. If you take away the taboo, you can have a real conversation with your student about how to make the right decision, no mater the situation.

I understand that many parents and educators are very concerned about what cell phone usage during the school day may bring. What if my student looks at an inappropriate website? What if my student is cyber bullied by a classmate? What happens when my student posts an unflattering picture of Mr. Feinberg? Let's be honest: all of these things are just as likely, if not more so, to happen outside of the school day and off our school campus as they are during our cell phone-permitted brunch and lunch periods. By allowing cell phone usage during brunch and lunch, we are joining our parent community in best educating our students on appropriate cell phone use. Now, we can better work together to address any concerning behavior and build in more teachable moments to best guide our students. This is what middle school is all about.

Because in just a few short weeks, if it hasn't happened already, everything is going to change again. It's called the Apple Watch.

If a student were to arrive on our school campus with an Apple Watch, would we make them take it off? Would we allow them to keep it on their wrist but mandate that they disconnect from the wifi or LTE coverage? The Apple Watch can be linked to your iPhone. It can receive texts, make calls, get score updates, post to your favorite social media sites, and so forth. And if we don't allow the Apple Watch during class time, do we allow it during breaks, brunch, and lunch? Simply put, the Apple Watch is going to change how education institutions address student access to the internet. And I'm not sure what we're going to do.

Further complicating matters is that all of our 6th graders will have 24/7 access to their very own ChromeBook for their three years at Union Middle. Not only will they be able to use them appropriate during class time, but they'll be able to work on projects during brunch and lunch by the picnic tables, write for their blog, or even check their email. Are these behaviors substantially different than how the majority of our other students would use their cell phone?

Perhaps the answer is to trust our students to use their cell phones appropriately during the school day. Do we set clear expectations regarding cell phone usage, such as "students may use their cell phones for academic reasons or for parental emergencies during brunch and lunch" in hopes of finding some sort of middle ground? We are quite lucky at Union Middle, as the strong majority of our students would use their cell phones appropriately. And for the students who would not? Well, they're probably already using their phones during the school day anyway. At least now, with our guided permission, we would be able to have deeper conversations about the poor choices rather than just focusing on "the rule" of not being allowed to have your cell phone out during the day.

I would not be surprised if in five years that almost every middle school will be allowing students to use their cell phones and various devices during brunch and lunch. I think the answer for us as parents, educators, and community members will be how to best support our students in making wise and healthy decisions when it comes to cell phone use. We have amazing, responsible students at Union Middle. They are, as a whole, rule followers and incredibly respectful of our school policies. That said, I truly believe the tide of cell phone usage during non instructional time throughout the school day at Union Middle has already turned.

I just don't know if we adults are aware that our students are already breathing in all of the oxygen.

Cell Phone Friday

Tomorrow at Union Middle School is the first ever (and possibly last ever) Cell Phone Friday.

Cell Phone Friday came about through our school site council meetings over a year ago in the Spring of 2014. Here, students, parents, and Union Middle staff members discussed the benefits, the concerns, and everything in between about providing permission to our middle school students to use their cell phones during brunch (15 minutes in the morning) and lunch (30 minutes around noon). Currently, students are allowed to use their cell phones before school but when the first bell rings at 8:26 am, the phones need to be turned off and placed in their backpacks. When the final school bell rings at 2:50 pm, the phones are allowed to be taken out of their backpacks and turned on for usage. Students, with teacher permission and supervision, are allowed to use their cell phones during class for academic purposes. It is also worth noting that students can use tablets and kindles to read their e-books during brunch and lunch (and are encouraged to do so).

In our school site council meetings, almost every individual was against allowing students to use their cell phones during brunch or lunch. However, as we discussed the topic further, opinions quickly began to change. Ultimately, we decided to include the question during my end-of-the-year survey for our parent community. The results are this survey were overwhelmingly and a resounding "no".

Truthfully, I was a bit surprised by the results of the survey. I anticipated that many parents would click "no, not under any circumstances should UMS allow students to use their cell phones during the school day", I was very surprised to see a strong majority of over 80% of our survey-responding parent community select this option. It was one of the strongest consensus results of the survey. And with these results, I tabled the topic for the upcoming 2014-15 school year... until our ASB/Leadership class began to grant wishes.

With the best intentions, our ASB/Leadership class mimicked a "make a wish" activity that has become quite popular at our local high schools. The majority of student wishes were for immediate gratification, often asking for In & Out for lunch or a late pass to 1st period. A few of the wishes were more heartfelt, including one student who asked for help in purchasing and dedicating a bench at a nearby park to his deceased relative with whom they would spend their weekend afternoons together. There were a few wishes that led to puppy-gate 2014... and no, we could not purchase puppies for our students and their families. Somewhere in the middle of the pile, there were a half dozen wishes from our students who asked for permission to use their cell phones during brunch and lunch. In reading these wishes, the topic of Cell Phone Friday was reborn.

With the help of our ASB students, I wrote an announcement to share with our students this morning, also to be repeated tomorrow. I introduced the concept of Cell Phone Friday to our students, gave them permission to use their phones appropriately during brunch and lunch tomorrow, and reminded them that their choices tomorrow could very well determine future opportunities to use their cell phones during break times at school.

Not wanting our parent community to necessarily hear this news first hand from their students, I sent out two short Reminds explaining the plan and expectations for our students during Cell Phone Friday. Specifically, I shared: "Hi UMS-tomorrow is cell phone Friday. Students can use their phones (appropriately) @ brunch & lunch. This is a 1 time pilot & wish request. We will be supervising and using any poor student decisions as a teachable moment. Questions? Please send me a remind chat or email. -Todd" To date, I have received three emails from our parents about the one day wish request of students being allowed to use their cell phones during brunch and lunch.

One parent was very direct that they did not believe that students should use their cell phones at school and that they should be banned altogether from our campus. Another parent was very interested on the thought process that went into the decision, indicating that they were quite certain that our students would be quite happy tomorrow at school. The third parent wrote a longer email that was a beautiful way to start a dialogue about appropriate and timely cell phone use on a middle school campus. I responded to all three parents and shared how much I appreciated their communication and that I looked forward to more conversation about this topic as this generation of digital natives promote through our school.

And so tomorrow is almost here. Cell Phone Friday will be one of three things: (1) a complete disaster with chaos lingering around every corner, (2) a day like any other with little difference despite some cell phone usage, or most likely (3) some great opportunities to have guided discussions about the appropriate use of cell phone use with some great principal selfies thrown in. Wish us luck.

(My next post linked here goes into my everchanging beliefs about cell phone usage on a middle school campus and where our rapidly approaching future days will lead us. The third post <also eventually linked and dependent on how quickly my daughters fall asleep tomorrow> will detail how successful Cell Phone Friday was at Union Middle. I hope you enjoy the reads.)

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