The merry-go-round of America’s principals. (i.e. why the new peeps pack less punch)

One of the lovely things about people who are “championing school reform” is that they are bringing down the guillotine on principals in a way that is practically unprecedented.

I mean I had 7 principals within 11 years at Lynwood High during one stretch. Who in the world believes that this kind of turnover is ever going to reap genuinely awesome results for anyone? However, Lynwood used to be an anomaly. Nowadays, this kind of “off with their heads” mentality is hardly uncommon.

In fact, it’s even legislated. (i.e. 2 years to turn around a low performing school or you are bounced).

Schools all over the country are changing administrative regimes at ridiculous rates. And look, let’s be honest, I’m a fan of a good head chopping. Cutting people loose who deserve to be cut loose doesn’t ruffle my feathers at all. But setting unrealistic expectations and then being hyper-quick to pull the trigger upsets the apple cart in a way that is probably more destructive in the long term than giving people a bit more of a leash to see if they can figure out some solutions to some very complex problems.

How many new principals started within the past few weeks? They don’t know the staff, they don’t know the facilities, they don’t know the existing culture and they don’t even know which is the right key they ought to use when they want to enter the boys’ bathroom on the first floor by the PE locker rooms.

But the test scores they know. And the test scores are what is going to determine their fate. And so they go about plugging in “pull the fire alarm” solutions right away to up the bubble tests at the expense of everything else. Problem is that teachers, schools and kids everywhere are becoming desensitized to all the change and nowadays, the new peeps pack less punch. “Heck, this guy/gal who is full of fire and brimstone” will be gone in 24 months anyway. I mean I liked ____________ (insert previous principal’s name) and no, I didn’t like ____________ (insert pre-previous principal’s name) but now the new guy/gal is really just yet another bowling pin.

With constant regime change comes constant “focus change”, “plan change”, “action change” and “priority change”.

And when you change too much, you end up never really changing at all.

Here’s to the merry-go-round of America’s principals… a dysfunctional loop created by politicians who don’t seem to know the first thing about how schools run or what they truly need.

Where ya been, Alan?

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front as of late because of how busy I have been, both as an author and as an educator.

Over the course of the past three weeks, I’ve been in Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, Maryland, New York and Michigan. Actually, I’ve to Detroit twice in the past two weeks. There’s only one word to describe it: wow.

Or is it Whoa? At this point, I am not sure.

A part of me can’t help but admire the work being done by teachers being pushed to surreal levels in this city. I don’t want to turn this into a “war stories” post but last weekend, 17 people were shot in the area where I was doing some PD, 10 died and the school lost 3 of its students in the past month.

A school where student to teacher classroom sizes are at 62 to 1. That’s not a typo. Some classes have 58, some a mere 47 but to see it firsthand is to see a secret shame America appears to want to either bury or ignore and I am not sure why.

I’d like to think that Detroit represents a reason why we simply cannot ignore the impact of a community on school test scores. No matter the platitudes or propaganda, no matter the finger pointing at teachers or the heightened rhetoric of the people who promise No Child shall be Left Behind, no matter the non-educators who rant on Capitol Hill or the candidates running for office next year who think that there is an easy answer in things like merit pay, Smartboards for all, or heightened teacher accountability (whatever that means), Detroit is a place that exemplifies what real teachers across the country already know: ya can’t pretend the whole child perspective on viewing academic achievement is irrelevant… because it’s not.

I was told Arne Duncan called Detroit “Ground Zero” in 2009. Well, the 2011 school year is about to dawn for them and all of them asked me the same question, “So what has he done about the problem? After all, he identified it and called us out quite publicly two years ago.”

A moment of silence for those kids – and the educators who are on the front lines – is in order. America deserves better.

And for those who say that class size doesn’t matter, I say, “Why don’t you head to Detroit and see how it looks to teach a class where kids sit on used milk crates, share desk at a clip of 2 students per one seat, and struggle without enough books to even manifest a classroom set of materials in order to teach a daily lesson.”

What to do when you feel blue.

Doing keynotes speeches has become big part of my life. Really, it’s not something I ever planned for but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I enjoyed it. Simply put, there’s a rush to be had from addressing crowds that can be as big as a few thousand. And since I only take on “events” where I think I can actually do well, serve the needs of the audience and genuinely be a contributor to this world (this is my litmus tests for accepting invitations to speak or do PD; it’s born from my personal mission statement to both provide meaning and find meaningfulness in the work that I do) well… it’s blossomed into a growing area of my life.

But the travel gets hard.

Fly enough and you are bound to look up and loathe the airlines. I am not a physically big person at all and yet, I often feel cramped. Plus, most domestic airlines really operate their business with a herding cattle mentality (despite their propaganda and platitudes; although some are much worse than others) and our countries fleet of airplanes are often old, crossing through airport security is often tedious and after the high of interacting with scores and scores of people, a long journey home on a late-night flight that’s been delayed, can actually swing the pendulum of your emotions in the opposite way and the whole experience can demoralize you a bit.

And when the airplane smells like dirty baby diapers as soon as you board, as it did yesterday after I gave a keynote speech to thousands in Mississippi that was truly a rockin’ home run of an event, it’s easy to get a bit blue.

Theoretically, there’s an answer for what to do when you turn blue. And that answer is, go do something nice for someone else. Putting your own (self-absorbed) issues aside and just simply seeing if you can bring a small bit of joy into someone else’s life is often the antidote when it comes to feeling down.

It’s like “Shoot, I am absolutely worthless to myself right now but hey, maybe I can be of some value to someone else.” If you can find a way to be of value to someone else the collateral benefit is often that you yourself will feel a little bit better.

But when you are feeling blue and cramped and have the scent of smelly baby diaper in your nostrils after having woken up at 3:45 am (according to my California body time clock; 6:45 on the east coast) and are now staring at a cross country flight on a plane that is packed to 100% capacity, well… screw humanity. That’s my mantra.

And then I saw my neighbor on the flight. A dad. Bout my age. With two kids, I’d guess 9 and 7, and one iPad. They were firing up Shark Week for the kids to watch. Unfortunately, however, they only had one set of headphones. Frustration quickly set in for my neighbors.

And in my bag I had an earphone splitter. So what did I do, I leaned over and hooked him up.

It was about as small as an act of generosity as a person could commit. And really, to even give myself props for having done this stretches the credibility of even using the word kindness to describe my actions.

But wow was dad appreciative. And so were his kids. Plus, as it turns out, we were flying back to L.A. he’s a big movie producer and I think he’s going to buy the rights to turn NERD GIRLS into a feature length film.

Okay, that last part is bull puckeys. He was just a dad and I got nothing from the interaction.

Nothing except an improved mood. As it turns out, my flight ended up being not so dreadful.

Why? Because all that stuff always exists solely between your ears.

The second mouse gets the cheese. A lesson for 49 other states.

The idea of restraining an educator’s ability to interact with students was the subject of my blog post the other day. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I am befuddled by the incoherent nature of the demand.

Now this is nothing against the state of Missouri because really, it could have been any one of a bunch of different state boards of ed which adopted this tactic. Thing is, the ones that did not are about to benefit from the mistakes that Missouri has made.

What’s the old saying, the second mouse gets the cheese. I think there is a bit of applicability to that going on right here.

First off, what constitutes a social network in 2011? Has that been accurately and clearly defined? If so, I haven’t seen it. And by the end of the school year, 10 months from now in 2012, will that definition still be applicable? It’s an amorphous prohibition being doled out, one which basically says, “You know what we mean” and yet, without clearly spelling out what is meant, I am not sure if I really know.

Can a student follow a teacher on Twitter? And if they do, can I prohibit people following me on Twitter? (I am not sure that’s an option available to me.)

And what’s all this about prohibiting interaction with former students. Is there a statute of limitations on when a former student becomes more than a former student? By that I mean a bunch of teachers have commented as to how former students are now colleagues on their campus. They are kids who grew up to become teachers.

Are these people too now banned from the list of approved people with whom we educators in MO can interact?

And, btw, when a teacher is off duty, is it even legal for school districts to draw parameters around their legal interactions? My former student is now my webmaster. For future site maintenance, should I send him a handwritten letter via snail mail as opposed to hitting him up on FB?

I could go on and on. Like who is going to “police” this policy anyway? Did the state of MO come up with a new source of funding to monitor Facebook, Google+, and so on for every educator in MO or will enforcement be selective, like just for those who randomly get caught by spot checks (conducted by whom, I still know not).

What was probably intended to be a simple request for current K-12 teachers not to friend students on Facebook (a request that has some merit, I’ll grant, even though, as FB evolves, perhaps less so) is now an official entanglement. The state of MO is gonna have to dedicate time, resources, legal counsel, attention, energy and so on to a fight that they really didn’t want.

A strongly worded suggestion stating: WARNING: Teachers, we at the MO Dept of Ed strongly recommend you do NOT friend students in the world of social networks as it can open dangerous doors which may jeopardize your professional career” would have been enough. Stay nebulous. Stay vague. Stay out of the legal mess that comes with the actual phrasing of mandated policy and then handle “issues” on a case by case basis because now, it seems to me, you just siphoned off a whole lot of resources that could have gone to student services which will instead go to things like defending your position, conferencing about the “steps you now must take to deal with the pushback” and other such bureaucratic nightmares born in the world of creating hastily fashioned public policy.

And if I am a parent in MO, I gotta be thinking to myself, “What were you thinking?” Sure, you want to protect kids from inappropriate educator contact but you want to do that in the classrooms, on the sports’ fields, on the street corners and so on, too. Now, you’ve embroiled yourself in a tangled web of forthcoming legal quaqmire.

The second mouse gets the cheese. A lesson for 49 other states.

Banning social media is a policy destined to fail.

I really like the state of Missouri – especially the grub they serve – but methinks they are getting this one wrong. Banning teachers from friending students on social network websites is, in my opinion, a policy destined to fail.

Just like banning students from having and using cell phones on campus is a policy destined to fail.

All in all, it’s short-sighted and doesn’t reflect an appreciation of how connectivity and communication between people has changed, is changing and will continue to change.

What the state really wants to ban is inappropriate communication between teachers and students. And who is going to argue with that? (Not me, which is why I do appreciate where this knee-jerk reaction is coming from.) But it’s not the medium that can be targeted; it’s the inappropriate behavior by the participants that ought to be… and by targeting the medium – as if social networking sites are the actual problem that the state department of education fears – they are only setting themselves up to have to re-visit and re-construct this policy after its inevitable demise befalls it.

Ya know, according to the Pew Center the majority of employed adults (62%) use the internet or email in the workplace. However, as this article points out, social cues and etiquette are often overlooked. Which can cost people their jobs. And why is this? Well, part of the reason stems from the fact that no one is really leading the charge on teaching the appropriate use of new technology. I mean, we are educators. Should we not turn to educating students about the protocol of the medium as opposed to banning the usage of what is inevitably going to be a medium they’ll need to know how to well-navigate for the workforce.

Arne Duncan has said time and time again the words “college and career readiness”. Of course, they are oversimplified platitudes however, being well versed in how to navigate social media is most certainly “college and career ready skills” if ever I could define them and yet we are seeking prohibition over education and expecting it to work out well (while meeting the objectives of our national Secretary of Education)?

And don’t get me started on ho we are valuing the bubble tests which almost never appear in the realm of career readiness when it comes to doing an actual job on this planet. (Outside of working in academia of course.)

Ban the bubble tests and embrace social media and you’ll have a much more “college and career ready” student body in America if you really want to make some headway on tackling the platitunadalness.

I get that social media interactions can be a slippery slope. I also get that people often fear that which they do not know or understand and the people who are making these policies probably are not too technologically literate themselves so they read the tabloid-istic headlines of how FB can destroy a life, invite amoral relationships between students and teachers and have no understanding of how Google+ can improve classroom instruction. So they ban it.

But can they ban it all? Can they ban the forthcoming apps that will further blur the line between social media and essential modern literacy? What about the idea that they are banning not only contact with current students but with former students as well. So recent graduates who are of legal age to drink, drive, vote and so on can’t be FB friends without it costing an educator their career. Back in the day, I think that older people staying in touch with younger people to offer advice, help assistance, insight, encouragement, connections or what-not was called mentorship. Now it’s called “cause for termination”.

Sorry, MO, this policy is not gonna hold up. If the Supreme Court doesn’t strike it down as unconstitutional the weight of its own lack of weight is going to cause it to cave all on its own. In 2011 this may seem “wise” to some but by 2018 it will seem like folly. Better to educate and instruct than ban and hope it all goes away… cause it ain’t.

Expecting pushback, I am now ready for your flamethrowers.


The new challenges of modeling reading.

I was sitting back reading this weekend while my daughter was goofing around in the yard in the way that 5 year olds are prone to do. It was a relaxing afternoon – a shining sun, a glass of lemonade, a red-breasted robin occasionally chirping its joy as I enjoyed a pipeful of tobacco and a swaying breeze (I’m trying to go all Norman Rockwell for ya… is it working?) – when I suddenly realized I had to stop and explain to my daughter that I was reading a book.

Why would I have to explain something so obvious? Because I was reading on my kindle and it dawned on me that one of the most important ways to raise a reader is to model the act of being a reader… but did she know I was reading since I only had an electronic slab in my hand of digital text.

For sure it was a book. An almost 1,000 page book. (I am currently reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts). And when parents read thick, meaty texts of fiction simply for the joy of reading it’s, well… a top-shelf literacy strategy. Modeling can move mountains. Yet, if she wasn’t keenly aware that I was reading a book of fiction simply for pleasure – a critical component – due to the “device factor” of reading on a kindle then I could be submarining my educational aims for her unwittingly. Being a model without her realizing I was modeling is not the greatest type of role modeling, now is it?

Of course, it’s not like I was “teaching a lesson” to my daughter; I was simply reading in the back yard. However, actions speak louder than words and there was a moment (right after the red-breasted robin melodiously let fly with a lullaby for her napping chicks) that I became all-too-aware that my kid might not have any idea what I was doing. We are the first generation to face this as parents. After all, who knows what is really going on on anybody else’s screen. (Trust me, I taught college classes for a few years and seeing students with their laptops open during class could mean diligent note-taking or Facebook photo surfing and as a professor, you have NO idea).

It was a big take-a-way for me. The more we read on screens, the more unknowable it is what we are reading. As the reader, that’s fine. It’s my screen, my eyes, my brain, my choice. But as a role model who wants to raise a lifelong reader, there are new challenges and I am convinced it would have been a mistake to assume that my 5 year old knew what I was doing just because it might have seemed so obvious to me.