I Read (and Wrote) to the Principal

When I moved into my new office last August, I found approximately 800 green pencils with “I Read to the Principal” printed on them, left for me by my predecessor.

Save that thought.

In my last blog post The Principal as a Writer, I wrote about how I modeled writing for my students and staff using Moleskine notebooks and a document camera. The modeling component of instruction is essential, but so is giving students the opportunity to practice their skills. As I have learned, student work should be authentic and relevant to their own lives.

I hoped that the students would be as motivated as I was to write about books I enjoyed. With that, I purchased one Moleskine journal for each classroom in which I regularly read aloud. Once they had seen me write a review, I handed off their classroom journal, with the following expectations:

1. They only put books in the journal that they truly enjoyed (four out of five stars or better).
2. They had to write to an audience, namely their classmates, their teacher and me.
3. They had to include their name as the reviewer. The idea behind this is classmates would presumably read the book review journal looking for their next great read. When they found a book that interested them, they could talk to the reviewer to get more information.
4. When students completed a review, they were encouraged to read their review to me in my office. Their purpose was to convince me to read the book they liked, as I had limited time to sort through all the literature out there.

Moleskine journals were now available in an opportune place in the classroom. Student book reviews commenced! Some classrooms used them more often than others. When I had not recently received a visit from a room, I again modeled a book review for that class in my own Moleskine journal, then encouraged the students to do the same.

Here is a third grader reading aloud his book review to me back in April.

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This is the book that he was trying to convince me to read through his review.

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He had me at “gruesome”.

After sharing, I gave each student one of the “I Read to the Principal ” pencils. What was nice was that they read to me their own writing. This practice corresponds with a number of my building’s beliefs we unanimously agreed upon as a staff, including:

Young children do not need to know all their letters and sounds before they can write stories and read back their own writing.

Shared writing text involving common experiences are often the easiest text to read.

A Couple of Reflections

– Writing for an authentic purpose is so critical. I couldn’t imagine writing this very post if I didn’t think I had an audience to read it or an opportunity for some constructive feedback. I imagine students feel the same way.
– Book reviews are a form of persuasive writing, an essential skill for students and for informed citizens.
– The reading-writing connection is a concept stressed by Regie Routman and other literacy experts. Reading makes better writers, and writing makes better readers.
– As a principal, this is another opportunity for me to visit with students in a positive context.

“Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.”- Peter Johnston, Opening Minds

Hoosiers and School Leadership

This morning I attended the annual thank you breakfast at Woodlands Church. They are a partner with Howe School, providing volunteers, school supplies and various resources to help our students learn.

While enjoying refreshments and chatting in their very nice community center, the pastor asked if I would say a few words about our partnership during service. Even though this is my fourth year in administration, I still get a pit in my stomach when talking in front of others, especially those I have not met. What do I say? What was the history of this partnership before I came along?

By luck (or divine intervention), I found an old coaching newsletter in a binder of school materials I was to give to a staff member that morning. I saved this newsletter (Basketball Sense, May 2001) from my basketball coaching days because of the excellent article on the cover, “The Coaching Philosophy of Norman Dale”. In it, high school basketball coach Larry Lindsey analyzes the coaching and program-building philosophy of Coach Dale, played by Gene Hackman, in the classic sports movie Hoosiers. Full disclosure: This movie is one of my favorites – I have owned it on VHS, DVD and now digitally.

Perfect! I evoked my inner Hackman and read some of Coach Dale’s quotes to the congregation (below, in italics), organized by Mr. Lindsay under different categories of program-building (bold). It was a nice way to connect the importance of being a team and the school’s partnership with the church. After the event, I also reflected on how these quotes relate to my position as a school leader. My reflections come after the quotes.

Practices

Let’s be clear about what we are after here.

– Do we have a mission focused on student learning and success? How are we communicating this within the school walls and beyond on a regular basis?

Support your players with the public

I would hope you support us for who we are, not for who we are not.

– Is the community supporting our efforts and focusing on what’s going well as well as what needs to be worked on?
– Is this support coming from our elected officials as well as from our parents and local organizations?

These six individuals made a choice…to represent you, this high school. That kind of commitment and effort deserves and demands your respect. This is your team.

– Are the teachers, staff, students and families in my school feeling respected? If not, what I am doing to advocate for this respect, maybe even demanding it?

How to build your team

Five players on the floor function as a single unit. No one person is more important than another.

– Am I expecting everyone to take on their fair share of the work load, including students, families and me?

Challenge your team

Remember what we worked on in practice. I want to see it on the court.

– Is what we are learning as a staff translating into improved student learning? How do we know?

Dealing with your team in a big game

Remember what got you here. Focus on the fundamentals. Don’t focus on winning and losing. Put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential.

– Is our professional development addressing best practices, rather than fluff, or outcomes only? Are we delivering our instruction with fidelity?
– Are the activities we are asking students to do standards-based, relevant and engaging?
– Are the students meeting their own expectations as well as ours? How do we celebrate our successes and not just test scores?

I agree with the author of this article that the process that occurred in Hoosiers typifies what a team or partnership should look like, to strive to better our abilities in order to achieve a goal.

Guest Post: “We’ve Got the Greener Grass”

What’s the answer to America’s educational woes? Two Harvard PhDs suggest that American public schools are the answer to Japan’s economic woes, that American schools are the gold standard when it comes to graduating innovators and risk takers. I edited the dissertations of these two Japanese scholars ten years ago. Both argued that Japan couldn’t extricate itself from ten years of recession, then known as the Lost Decade, because its school system didn’t produce the creative class that America’s schools did. Since then, there’s been another ten consecutive years of recession. These scholars noted that America enters and exits recessions. They attributed the exits to America’s creativity and they credited America’s schools for engendering that creativity.

There was a recent article in the New Yorker where Chinese people wondered why China hasn’t been an innovator for thousands of years. They recognized that China is quite clever in copying Western inventions, but bemoaned the lack of homegrown innovation. I urge you to look at the list of things invented in America at Wikipedia. It’s a staggering list. The Egyptians beat us to paper because they were around four thousand years ago and we weren’t, but the vast majority of the things that constitute modern living were first made in America. If those two Harvard PhDs are right, then America’s push to standardized testing and standardized schools could eventually be our economic undoing.

I’ve had the privilege of interviewing hundreds of people who collectively oversee millions of American workers. One is an M.I.T. PhD graduate who works at I.B.M.

“Whom do you hire?” I asked.

“I’m not real concerned with GPAs,” she replied. “I look for people who can recover from failure since 95% of what we do at I.B.M. is fail.”

I’ve had other corporate executives tell me that they too don’t chase those with high GPAs, for they’ve learned that many of them are grade chasers, avoiding the tough courses and the possibility of failure for the luster of a number. These executives told me that they look for someone who took the tough courses. If a candidate earned something other than an A, but took another hard course, that person is that much more attractive.

Executives also tell me that they need people who can collaborate, that “the systems and challenges are so complex that no one is brilliant enough to work alone anymore.”

So, if we’re to prepare our students for the professional challenges that await them, rather than chase higher test scores, we should continue to nurture creativity and provide opportunities to collaborate and fail. “Fail” might seem harsh, but failure sets up the opportunity to rebound from failure.

Lastly, the PhD at IBM, a woman who oversees 800 employees and has hired scores of them, said that if she had to choose between hiring a software engineer with a full focus on software engineering and a software engineer with an art minor, all other factors being equal, she’d hire the engineer with the art minor. “That engineer is more likely to consider a problem from a different perspective.”

Looking across the Pacific, the grass of higher test scores seems greener to America’s politicians who determine pedagogical policy. However, the view from Asia is one of a lush and creative America, one that extricates itself from recession again and again through the verve of its creative graduates, and one that has leveraged diverse education into world class innovation.

Katie McKy might just be the most booked children’s book author for school visits in the upper Midwest. She visits about 100 schools a year and has taught and entertained more than 300,000 children in the last decade. She also writes for many business magazines and so has had the opportunity to have CEOs, VPs, and COOs go off the record and truly say what they like and don’t like about America’s graduates. Read about Katie at http://www.katiemcky.com.

Christmas Cards for Teachers’ Parents

My first reaction to hearing Todd Whitaker (@toddwhitaker) propose that principals should send photos of staff working with kids to the staff members’ parents was, “Who has time for that?” After actually sending out these photos and reflecting on the feedback I received, I now think, “That time was well spent.”

After attending the administrator conference where I heard this idea, I started using Twitter to collaborate with colleagues (thanks go to @PrincipalJ and @WiscPrincipal for presenting about this useful tool). I asked other principals online if they had done this, or what they thought about the idea. Many had not tried it, but most thought it was worthy of my time.

With help taking candid pictures of staff members in action, uploading them to an online printer and collecting staff members’ parents’ addresses, this project did not take as much time as I feared. In fact, my biggest concern was how the teachers and aides plus their family members would react to the principal sending out Christmas cards with photos to them. I did not know who they were, nor did they know me.

The feedback could not have been more positive. During break, I received four emails from staff and one email from a parent of a teacher, all thanking me for taking the time to recognize their efforts. I even had a grandparent of one of my teachers stop me after church, thanking me for sending the photo of their granddaughter to their son.

When I got back to school after the New Year’s, several staff members stopped me in the hallway to thank me personally for the card and photo. One of my teachers has a sister who teaches in the Fox Valley (Wisconsin). She said her sister gave the card and photo to her principal, requesting that he do the same thing next year. I also had two parents of teachers write me a personal thank you card. One parent’s message was especially touching; this teacher’s mother stated she was feeling lonely during the holiday season, until my card showed up in the mail. Seeing her daughter working with students made her day.

I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone a little in order to share my appreciation for my staff with the people who care about them the most. My only concern now is: Do I do this every year? Will it become trite or expected? Any comments or questions you may have would be appreciated.