Boys Will Be Boys

My son, appreciating the view of the Poconos Mountains in Pennsylvania

At one point in the school year, I was in my office with two different students, both males. A primary student was sent out of class because he refused to complete his math work. I helped him with the last part, which was challenging, although the student was fully capable. An intermediate student went into a complete shutdown in the LMC. He and another boy were playing tag in the library. After taking a break, he refused to leave, which led to climbing on windows, which led to threatening to pull the fire alarm, which led to…

Outside my office were three more boys. They had taken a snack off of a classroom table and then gotten into an argument with the teacher about who was the guilty party. When I attempted to engage in a conversation about what happened, lots of arguing and finger-pointing ensued. “I did not take that snack!” cited one student. “That’s not true – you were totally there!” a peer responded. Our counselor stepped in and helped them process through this situation and then write an apology note to the teacher.

Misbehaviors in school are certainly beyond a “boy” problem. Around the same time, two girls became very argumentative with the art teacher and were removed from class. Poor choices are not exclusive to one gender.

But after looking at our school behavioral data over the past three years, the results are clear: 4 out of every 5 behavior referrals are attributed to boys. The most common incidences involve physical aggression, disruption, and defiance. Why are they misbehaving? I’ve heard from educators in the past that “boys will be boys”. Is this a fair assessment? The fact that girls are now faring better than boys in school achievement leads one to believe that this is not just a boy problem, but rather an issue with the educational system as a whole.

When you combine this information with the unfortunate reality that higher academic expectations has led to more ADHD diagnoses, and that boys are more likely than girls to receive this diagnosis, a sense of frustration can set in. How do educators respond while still holding all students responsible for their actions? In addition, changing how school looks and feels for males can be a significant adjustment for teachers. It might involve giving up some control and allowing students to determine their own learning destiny more often.

My son, listening to an audiobook on our iPad

Designing school with boys in mind is also a departure from the historic role of school: To disseminate information and build basic understandings. If a school were to alter their approach for teaching boys, a priority would have to be placed on hands-on experiences, constructing knowledge at their pace, and not placing such a premium on assignment deadlines or the printed and written word.

The last part of the previous statement might rub literacy experts the wrong way. My position is in no way a condemnation of current literacy practices found most effective for learners. Rather, I am questioning the limitations teachers and school leaders set on students when reading text and producing writing. For example, how are digital tools being leveraged for this kind of work? A multimedia presentation, such as an interactive video, doesn’t have to replace the traditional report. In fact, the report could be a prerequisite for the digital-based task which could complement the original writing project. This could lead to a more robust performance task for a unit of study.

Another idea is to allow students to dictate their writing using voice recognition software. This circumvents the oft-cited complaint of boys that they hate the physical act of putting words on paper. This deficit is supported by research that shows boys develop more slowly than girls in fine motor skills, a critical skill for writing. Conveying that writing is more than just a piece of paper and a pencil might alleviate some of these frustrations.

I don’t believe educators have to think too hard or do any significant extra work by designing school with boys in mind. The most challenging aspect may be in rethinking our belief that many boys are not built for schools. Rather, we need to rebuild schools and make them more accommodating for how boys learn. The best part of this approach? That both genders would benefit from changes that would be made if educators more closely considered the needs and interests of males in the learning process. Offering appropriate challenges, lots of choice, reasonable accommodations, and opportunities to be active are strategies that allow for all learners to be more successful and less frustrated with school.

Can a Principal Also Be a Coach?

This is a question I continue to ponder, even after I have completed my Connected Coaching course through Powerful Learning Practice. The biggest issue I see is this: An administrator has to make evaluative decisions regarding staffing. This simple fact seems to lead me to believe that a principal can never truly be a coach. There is a line. In addition, in today’s political climate, how can a teacher truly take risks and embrace failure, when an attempt at innovation may lead educators to believe that it might lower students’ performance and incur instructional time lost?


photo credit: via photopin cc

However, the paths of success and failure should not be two way streets. Maybe if principals take a coaching stance with their staff, innovation can flourish. Both teachers and students can be co-learners in their classrooms.

Consider the following potential activities I discovered with Lani Ritter Hall (@lanihall) this summer:

  • Six Word Stories

I have my list of items to cover every fall with staff, along with a school kickoff that hopefully sets the tone for the rest of the school year. These are important building-wide activities. At the same time, we need to get to know each other as individuals in order to build trust and to show our creative sides. A six word story can allow everyone to express themselves and their passions in a nonthreatening way.

Here was my six word story:

This is the title of a great book on mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The artwork is by my daughter. I used to create this image. For my teachers who all have iPads, I could see them using Skitch to share their six word stories with each other.

  • Appreciative Inquiry

I like to meet with each of my teachers in the beginning of the school year. We discuss their learning goals for the year, for themselves and their students. In the past I have prepared a list of questions to ask each teacher. Unfortunately, these conversations can become contrived, almost forced. With appreciative inquiry, it’s about focusing on the positive and helping the other person delve deeper into their own thinking.

Appreciative inquiry involves two skills: paraphrasing and questioning. When the other Connected Coaches and I started trying this out on each other, we thought it was a little hokie. But once we were on the receiving end of the coaching, we realized that appreciative inquiry is really just a framework for being an active listener when trying to find solutions to problems. This animated video shared in our group provides a nice explanation:

  • Design Thinking

We can discuss our successes, wonderings, and possibilities for as long as we want. But we also have to take action on these ideas. Design thinking is the process of brainstorming ideas, synthesizing those ideas into something tangible, and then setting up a process for testing these ideas to see if they make a positive impact on student learning. Design thinking takes what a teacher is doing well and applies it in a slightly different way within the teacher’s current context. I appreciated this interview from to help me grasp this concept:

This sent a powerful message to me. Am I hearing everyone’s story? How is it integrated with what they as teachers do everyday in their classrooms? This comes back to being an active listener and respecting the process just as much as (or even more than) the product.

  • Bringing it All Together: The Wayfinding Model

The Wayfinding Model brings together 1) trust building, 2) questioning, and 3) facilitating design thinking ( I think every powerful practice needs a structure to support it, kind of like a coat hanger. What do we hang our many instructional hats on?

This animation nicely summarizes the essentials of Connected Coaching:

So I come back to my original question: Can a principal also be a coach?

Coming into this course, my answer was no. If students are experiencing a poor learning experience, no amount of coaching may remedy this situation. They deserve the best learning environment. I try to treat each situation as if my own son our daughter were in that classroom. Knowing what I know, would I stand for this? This simple question helps guide a lot of my decision-making.

However, I also see the challenges of taking a multi-year process to ferret out poor performers. It can negatively affect both student learning and school climate. Dylan Wiliam, in his terrific book Embedded Formative Assessment, takes the approach that our time as school leaders is best spent helping every teacher become better at what they do. The students we have now deserve the very best we can offer today.

Yes, this is one of those posts that doesn’t answer its original question. Frustrating, right? Unfortunately I don’t have all the answers, but at least I know the direction I am heading. My hope is any readers here would continue this conversation in the comments…

Getting On My Soapbox: Standardized Testing

I recently read Annie Murphy Paul’s article in Time titled Relax, It’s Only a Test. Below is the comment I posted on her blog citing the same article.

Thank you for writing about this topic Annie. I have shared your posts often with my educator colleagues.

As I read, some questions came to mind:
– Why are we administering exams that create anxiety in the first place? Do the benefits outweigh the effects? Who benefits?
– How much learning time is lost with the addition of these interventions to reduce anxiety? (Learning time is already reduced due to standardized tests.)
– Even if we can mitigate the anxiety created by these tests, are we getting a truly valid and reliable measure of what our students know and are able to do?
– A multitude of studies show a positive correlation with formative assessment and improved student learning (see: McTighe, Wiggins, Guskey, Fisher, Wiliams, Marzano). What would happen if the 1.6 billion dollars were reallocated toward using formative assessment as our preferred method of measuring student learning?
– How might these distant, standardized tests negatively affect relationships and trust between the teacher and their students?

I know that this is not the focus of what you wrote and I don’t expect you or anyone to change the current testing climate any time soon. I am just curious about your broader perspective regarding high stakes testing as a whole.

When I hear about how we can help our students better manage their anxiety in response to high stakes testing, I believe we miss a more important point: Why are we doing this in the first place?