51%

A few years ago, I attended a talk by Donna Beegle about poverty. Donna grew up in a family of migrant workers, and worked her way through some incredible circumstances to eventually receive a Ph.D in communications, write a book, and now works as an advocate and consultant.

During her talk, I was first introduced to ACES, or Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey. The survey looks for different types of childhood experiences that are considered traumatic: anything from a divorced family to severe childhood abuse. The higher the score, the more adverse your experiences were. This is important research, because many of the symptoms of a child growing up in these circumstances mimic the symptoms of children with diagnoses such as ADD and ADHD, but the interventions recommended for these separate issues are clearly very different.

Donna asked the audience to take the quiz, and the audience of over 200 educators had an average score of 4. Donna then discussed with the mostly white, mostly middle class audience how our score affected our lives, and how our students lives are so very different. She discussed Ruby Payne’s work, and how when you grow up in poverty, you have to learn a whole other set of hidden rules in order to make it in a middle class world, and these rules are not communicated to you the way they are to a middle class child (for example: I was an adult in my 30s before I had ever heard the word ‘escrow’ before).

Dr. Beegle trains poverty advocates, individuals who partner with folks living in poverty, to teach them the hidden rules and help them navigate through the system. Things like how to get a library card, how to register to vote, where to go to get your license, how to apply for a loan, etc. These are all systems that are already in place for middle class families– their children are brought into these systems, and so explanations are often not required. But a child living in poverty learns an entirely different set of rules and systems, that do not translate into a middle class environment (for example: I know how to siphon gas, how to shower without running water, how to stay warm without heat, etc)

As we drove home from the conference, my colleagues and I discussed the talk.  And of course, we compared scores. I had the unhappy renown of hitting the high score in the car with an 8 out of 10.

As we talked more, I was surprised, as I often am, at the many things about middle class living that my colleagues (whom I deeply respect and admire) took for granted. I made a commitment that day that I needed to start talking more about my childhood growing up in poverty, because I needed my colleagues to understand that stories like Dr. Beegle’s (stories like mine) are possible for everyone of our students. Too often as a kid I ran into well-meaning teachers who would (quite literally) tell me to settle for less because that’s as good as I would get– from the guidance counselor who would not help me with scholarship applications to the teacher who would not let me take an advanced placement history course my senior year– even though I had all the right pre-requisites, because she needed to reserve the seats for those that were ‘college-bound.’

I had just such an opportunity the other day in a finance committee meeting at Schoolcraft, as we were discussing our policy about food service balances. As every school in the nation does, we have some students who have a high lunch balance that goes unpaid. It is Schoolcraft’s policy to ALWAYS feed these children, regardless of their balance, and work out the balance with adults later. 

This policy existed before I came onto the scene, and I just had to give them team props. I remembered back in my day (not so long ago!) when I had been asked to do janitorial work in exchange for school lunch. I would scrape the trays and wash tables for my middle class classmates, having to miss a little bit of class so that I could eat before they arrived, and coming back a little late so that I could finish cleaning up the cafeteria. This was my experience from about 2nd grade until 7th.

Once I went to junior high, it was the practice of the school just to simply not feed kids who couldn’t pay. I will never forget the hot shame I felt one day when I didn’t realize there was no money on my account and went through the line, and the cafeteria worker took my tray away from me and threw it in the trash. That was the only meal that I was going to eat that day, and there it was, wasted in a garbage bin.

51% of the students at Schoolcraft qualify for free and reduced lunch. This is higher than our state percentage of 38%. Many other families in our school do not hit the qualifying metric for this distinction, even though their families struggle.

It is a point of pride at Schoolcraft that our kitchen serves fresh, home cooked meals every day. Our chef is often seen peeling real potatoes, cracking real eggs, and serving real chicken (no ‘mystery meat Mondays’ at Schoolcraft). We do not give an option for chocolate milk. It is an important part of our culture that our scholars are being given the right tools that they need for learning, and we believe that this includes their physiological needs as well. I am proud to work in a place where there is no stigma attached to being one of the 51%, where kids are blissfully ignorant of the financial situation of their peers, and instead, we can all focus on working and learning together.

 

The wand chooses the wizard.

“We’re canoers now, Mom.”

That’s what my 4 year old son told me, just a few minutes after we got on a canoe for the very first time. I’d been paddling him around the shore of our lake place in Two Inlets, MN, our golden doodle Tucker lying at my feet, my 7 year old daughter in a blue kayak just a little ways behind us.

 

I recently had a great conversation with one of my colleagues who has a degree in environmental education. He’d like to see the outdoor education program at our school deepen and expand (as we all would). One of the things he said to me was, “I’d like to see these kids define themselves by what they learn here– I want them to say, ‘I’m a climber,’ or ‘I’m a mountain biker.'”

I have been thinking about what that means. What distinguishes someone who is something from someone who does something? For example– I write blog posts. I am not sure I would call myself a writer. I’m also the Director of a school– I haven’t been responsible for a single classroom for a few years. But if someone asks me what I do, I still say, “I’m a teacher.”

I read a great book about professional learning communities called Professional Capital. In it, the author asserts that until a person has grounded their identity within their membership of their team, the team is not really a team. Here’s a thought exercise: if your organization closed it’s doors tomorrow, would you or your team members say, “I just don’t know who I am anymore,” or, “I just don’t know who I would be without this organization,” than you may be a true team. Conversely, if you have a group of people who would say something like, “Hey, if my school closed it’s doors tomorrow, I could just go start teaching somewhere else,” without an ounce of regret or sadness, than maybe you don’t. The difference is that the team members who feel like their identity is wrapped up in the organization is going to work harder to make sure that it survives.

I remember when I read this, I thought immediately about gangs. In my experience working in inner city and impoverished schools, the kids joining gangs do so because they are looking for acceptance. They want to belong to something. They want to be on a team! I realized that it’s even deeper than this– they are looking for their identity. The want to know who they are– and a gang (or any team!) will tell them: You are what you do, and this is what we do.

This is why kids who are in sports, scouts, piano lessons, etc, are less likely to join a gang or fall in ‘with the wrong crowd’– they already have a place where they belong. Their identity is grounded in their team. They already have something that they can ground themselves in: I am a pianist, and pianists do XYZ, and pianists DON’T do XYZ. I am a football player, and football players do XYZ, and football players DON’T do XYZ. Etc.

It is also why people often credit the military with giving them a home they didn’t know they needed, or why they feel like things just seemed to fall in place once they joined up. Once they understood the rules of the culture they were a part of, and started to emulate that culture in their own lives and choices, they felt like they were a part of something. They became.

Don’t get me wrong– I am not a crazy Jets vs. Sharks lady who feels like the lines between conventions can never be blurred. That’s not at all what I’m suggesting. What I’m saying is that when people feel like they have somewhere they belong, they thrive. When they feel like they are a part of something, and that their membership in that group is crucial to the group itself, their self-worth rises. They become crew, not a passenger.

For many years, Schoolcraft has been asking the question– What makes a Schoolcrafter? How do our kids stand apart? If you put an 8th grade Schoolcraft graduate next to an 8th grader from anywhere else, what’s different about us? Where is our identity? What defines us? If someone asked them, “Who are you?” Would our kids answer, with pride, “I’m a Schoolcrafter”? Would my staff? When my students are absent, do they feel like their crew was missing something vital and important? If not– how can we build those structures so that our kids know that being at school is important, that they are wanted and needed? Because I can tell you: there are plenty of other organizations that make our kids feel this way. Why shouldn’t they feel this way at school?

Ask yourself: What are you? Who are you? What do you do? Where do you belong?

Ask yourself: What is my classroom? What do the kids do? How do they feel– not just comfortable, safe, and welcome– but truly like they are part of the identity of the class? How do you curate experiences to help kids feel like we need their individual input in order for the crew to thrive?

Reason number 1,346 that I love summer: Time to read great books

“Research shows that the factor to advance student engagement and achievement is not just teaching, nor just learning, but interlocking the two. A hinge is the device that allows two sides to swing relative to each other, and feedback seems to be a hinge that allows for the transfer of information from the teacher to the student and back to the teacher again. If we look at learning research, we find that feedback connects students to teachers in a way that acts as a hinge, and the result is accelerated productivity and increased achievement.” -From Feedback by Jane Pollack

A few years ago, when I was in charge of school improvement initiatives at an elementary school, I assigned a group of teachers to read the book “Learning Targets” by Connie Moss. I remember discussing success criteria– the way that the students will know if the learning target has been met.

The PE teacher, who was (and still is) a fabulous instructor, discussed how learning looks in her classroom.

She said, “So, say that I’m teaching the kids to dribble. I might say something like, “Today we’re going to learn how to dribble. Dribbling is when you bounce the ball repeatedly, with only one hand. After we’ve got that down, I’ll teach you a game we can play with dribbling.” Having given this basic learning target and success criteria, she would probably then give a demonstration of dribbling. This first demonstration would probably be very rudimentary– she wouldn’t talk much about exact technique, only the basics. And then she’d probably say something like, “Go ahead.”

She’d watch the kids bouncing the ball, and then she would stop and give some feedback based on what she saw. “Only one hand,” She might repeat, or “It helps if you bend your knees,” Or “Eyes on the ball!”

Then she’d have them try again, and repeat the process.

I remember thinking about this technique, which seemed like second nature to the PE teacher. I thought about how every student I knew would probably say at some time that PE was their favorite subject, and how (especially when they were young), they probably all felt like they were GOOD at PE.

I wondered about this way of teaching in bite-sized increments. What would that be like, if in 3rd grade ELA, we said something like, “Today we’re going to learn about comparing and contrasting, which is when we look at how two things are alike, and how two things are different. After we have that figured out, we’re going to compare and contrast two Cinderella stories.” Presented them with an apple and an orange, and then had them just try. Right away. No more instruction than that. And then, after they try, give the feedback.

I started to wonder if the reason that most kids enjoy PE has less to do with the fact that little kids are naturally wiggle worms, and maybe because the skills being taught are so within reach. Maybe because it’s so skills based, so straight forward, and has always been taught in a way that is accessible.

Think about video games. Kids playing video games are used to immediate and constant feedback. Depending on how they wiggle their thumbs, their character on the screen continues or meets its demise. This is like PE class– if you are dribbling a ball with two hands, this is immediately apparent. If you drop the ball on your shoe and it rolls away, this is immediately apparent. What if we all gave feedback that was immediate and constant?

What could this look like in your classroom?

 

8th Grade Graduation 2017– My first commencement address!

Welcome to 2017 graduation!

So, I’m a newcomer to the community here. These 8th graders are the group that convinced me to take the job, at about this time last spring, when I came to their celebration. As part of their celebration, they were shooting off rockets in the field, and Michaela, Addie, and Clara were explaining the rockets to my 6 year old daughter. I was looking at these girls that were so confident, smart, and proud of themselves, and I thought– I want these girls to be the role models that my daughter looks up to. So I called Scott the next day and took the job.

Since then, I’ve been spending my year learning as much as I can about Schoolcraft, and the kids have been my best teacher.

Part of the mythology surrounding Schoolcraft is Move In/Move Out. The beauty of our program is wrapped up in the ‘summer camp feel’ that many of our staff and students have highlighted over the years– and an obvious contributing factor to this feeling is the fact that we are quite literally located at a summer camp.

However– as our year winds down, this means that Concordia Language Villages summer camp program starts to amp up– bottom line, we have to take every shred of evidence that a K-8 school lives here for 9 months of the year and put it away for the summer.

As I was preparing these remarks, my office was in boxes, with only the essential paperwork and my computer left out. I also had several dozen red roses, all decked out with Schoolcraft blue and green ribbons.  As I was packing last night, looking at the disarray of my first year at Schoolcraft scattered all around the office, but also taking notice of the flowers that represent our graduates, I thought it was such an interesting dichotomy– out of all of this chaos and craziness, the daily grind of running a school, we have something so perfect set apart.

I was reminded of the Buddhist tradition of sand mandalas, which is what’s happening on the screen behind me.

If you’re not familiar with mandalas, it’s a really fascinating ritual. Monks will spend hours of time creating beautiful geometric masterpieces out of sand. It takes them days and weeks to finish their artwork. The word mandala means “universe,” and the philosophy behind this practice is that as the monks build the mandala, they are thinking good thoughts, well wishes, and focusing their good intention. They believe that those good intentions become a part of the mandala.

After it’s complete, the monks enjoy it for a short time, and then the literally sweep it all away with tiny brooms. Sometimes they package up the sand to give away as a token, and sometimes, they toss the sand into the wind and let it scatter. The idea is that they have had their time to enjoy the beautiful universe they have worked so hard to create together, and now it is time to let it go.

As I make ready to end my first year as a Schoolcrafter, I am struck by this image of a sand mandala. Every September, we gather our materials and our wits, and begin crafting a beautiful image that represents our mission statement: Schoolcraft Learning Community exists to help develop individuals to be self-directed, lifelong learners who have the skills and knowledge to confidently and compassionately navigate in the world. We set our conditions just right for each student to give them what they need as individuals to become an embodiment of that mission statement, and we spend all year working together towards this ideal.

And then in May, we sweep it all away. We put everything into boxes, we pack it all into trailers, and we bid farewell to the journey of the past year.

I have been thinking that this practice, even though it is exhausting, is probably pretty psychologically healthy. We do not hold onto clutter, or historical residue. We enjoy the moments that manifest before us, and then we let it scatter into the wind.

As I look at our graduates, I see two universes. Two masterpieces. Each of these students is their own masterpiece– with their own hopes, dreams, ideas, and perspectives, and ready to walk their own path. For several years, we have been walking with you, learning from you even as we’ve been teaching you.

It’s been our job, and our great pleasure, to walk with you, and to prepare you as well as we can so that you can continue your journey without us.  

Each of you is also a piece of the Schoolcraft universe. Our journey would have been different without you, and after you leave, our journey will not be the same. Each of you contains the best of what Schoolcraft has to offer. The teachers have told me over and over again this year that what makes this place so special is not our beautiful setting, our interesting buildings, our well-meaning but slightly crazy staff– It’s the kids. The kids are our secret sauce.

You are our pride and joy, our hopes and dreams, our well-wishes and our good intentions. You are our life’s work. I said earlier that you are the reason that I took the job, and that’s true in a real way, and a more philosophical way– because you are why all of us took the job. You are our masterpieces. And now it is time to sweep you up, and let you go.

As you begin this next part of your journey, it is my hope that you can carry with you the experiences and memories from your years here. I will be forever grateful to how open-hearted you have been to me in my first year, and how much you have taught me about being a Schoolcrafter. I hope very much that our paths cross again.

Thank you.

 

 

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

For the last four years, I have been heavily involved with a fantastic event: EdCamp Bemidji. 

EdCamp may well be my favorite day of the entire year. Four years ago, I was a participant at the first EdCamp Bemidji, which had been organized by two forces of nature: Stacy Bender-Fayette and Lisa Sjogren. After that first year, I got involved on the planning committee, and for the last two have been a co-chair of the event.

Sometimes people ask me why I got into teaching, and I used to feel bad that my answer was not the typical elementary teacher answer– “Because I love kids.” I mean– don’t get me wrong– I DO love kids. But the reason I got into teaching (and lately, administration), is because I love LEARNING. A few years ago I got into professional development, and the idea of parallel process- meaning– what’s good for the kids is good for the adults. That single philosophical shift has made a major difference in my career and my outlook. I realized that it’s good for adults to be learning new techniques, exposed to new ideas, involved in developing new methods– even if they never, ever use them– simply because the process of the learning and reflection on the learning is so valuable.

If you’ve never been to an Edcamp, I suggest you find one right this minute and attend. 

Edcamps are free and open events that are focused on best practices in education. Rather than bringing in expensive clinicians or keynote speakers, we basically get an auditorium and fill it full of educators, and then ask them– What do you want to learn about?

Teachers propose the sessions– they come up and say, “I’d like to have a discussion on the best way to engage students of color in my classroom,” or “I have never used twitter before and I want to find out how,” or “I’m a student teacher and I want to learn more about using Daily 5 or Reader’s Workshop” and then we find them a room, add them to the schedule, and there you have it. Teachers choose which sessions they’d like to attend, or they choose to spend an hour researching something that they’d like to use, or they choose to spend an hour sitting with their colleagues talking about the things they never have time to talk about.

I have always felt that administrators should be more involved in professional development. It models good behavior and a growth mindset to staff, as well as letting your staff know that you truly value continuous improvement. At Edcamp, we’ve always been careful about levelling the playing field, and letting people know that we are all equals. This makes the Edcamp experience even more valuable– I learned so much listening to teachers about what they value and things that they struggle with and want to know more about. Administrators who do not take the time to value their staff in this way will soon find themselves irrelevant and out of touch.

I am super proud of EdCampBJI because Stacy and I are laser focused on making sure that they day is smooth, easy, and fun for everyone. Our committee goes crazy finding great prizes, food, and a beautiful space for the event, and keeping everything absolutely free for the educators.

This year, as a new Director, I was particularly proud of my staff. Throughout the day I saw Schoolcrafters leading sessions, offering ideas, helping people find their way, volunteering to move coffee/clean up after lunch/etc, and basically just propping people up all day long. Schoolcraft has been a sponsor of EdCampBJI for the last 4 years, and I am anticipate that we will always find ways to be involved.

The trouble with my generation

I love Simon Sinek. This video has been making the internet rounds as of late. As a millennial myself, I think that my generation has a lot to offer the world if we could channel our perspective into something productive, and I think Simon would agree.

While I don’t agree with everything he is saying here, I absolutely agree with his indictment of millennials need for instant gratification.

The need for instant gratification

I once had a long chat with my Grandma about what made her happy as a kid, and she looked a little amused and said she hadn’t thought about it much because she was working too hard. She was finally able to settle on a memory she had about swinging on the gate when she was letting the cows in and out of the pasture. This was her fun time, a few minutes each day, when she swung on a gate while in the middle of an arduous and crucially important task.

For previous generations nothing was automated– if you wanted to eat a cookie, you had to make it. If you wanted to heat up some leftovers, you had to build a fire (and also preserve the leftovers). If you wanted to know how much money you had, you had to keep track. If you wanted to own something, you either had to make it, or you had to find out how to get it, or you had to learn how to live without it.

If you wanted to know something, you had to research it, read about it, and think about it. These are all tasks that are automated for my generation. Literally no effort is required. Think about what it takes to read a book like Les Miserables or a Tale of Two Cities. My generation watches the movie, reads the Spark Notes, or asks Siri for a synopsis– and that is probably good enough to pass a test in their Literature class. But when you take an experience and reduce it to the smallest possible iota that could be earned from it, you lose so much– how much vocabulary, context, character development, and emotions are lost when you read a synopsis vs. reading something epic? It is true that you may have gained the knowledge, but you have completely lost sight of the skill. It is a focus on product, rather than process. Knowing, rather than learning.

I think that this has lead to three unique problems for millennials:

1) Impatience
Example: when I started dating my husband, he would often watch three different shows at once by flipping back and forth between three channels during the commercials. I thought I was going insane.

Anything that takes time to curate is often seen as not worth it. Remember when we were teenagers and we would sneer at passion– teasing people who cared about something because it just so uncool? Millennials never grow out of that. Why care about something and develop your skills at it? There’s an app for that– or I can just go online and order it from Etsy. Plus– Who has time to care about something and get better at it when there’s a new season of Gilmore Girls on Netflix?

2) A total misunderstanding of their own talents and abilities

Example: If I am not good at this immediately, I am a failure at it and should never do it again.

I am not one who is prone to regret, but of the few regrets I harbor they are all related to things I gave up because I didn’t excel immediately. Piano. Dance. Foreign language. Poetry. In each of these cases, I recognize that I had siblings who excelled in those areas, seemingly without having to work very hard. I was embarrassed that I had to practice piano twice as long as my brother in order to be half as good, so I gave up altogether. As an adult, I now know that my brother is an incredibly talented musician, and that I actually wasn’t half-bad at piano– but because I was only comparing myself to him, rather than focusing on my own talents and abilities, I got lost. I felt like– hey– why care about piano when I could be focusing on writing, which is something that I am way better at and don’t have to work so hard at? I’ll just do that instead. I would give anything to go back and try again– because (duh) it’s not about being the best. It’s about enjoying the ride. My brother is a professional musician, and I am a mom who would like to be able to play along with her kids when they are singing Christmas carols. I don’t need the same level of skill as him, and by only focusing on the things I was already good at, I missed out on a lot of character building experiences when I was young, and the stakes were nice and low. That leaves millennials like myself with two choices: either learn those lessons in college or early adulthood– when the stakes are much higher– or don’t learn them at all, steer clear of them forever. We all work with people like that. It is not, shall we say, a pleasure.

3) Equating HARD WORK with failure

Example: “I have to work harder at this skill than so-and-so; so I should give up. I must not be meant for this type of work.”

I’m not saying that we all have to be rock stars or NFL football players. I’m not saying that it’s never okay to give up on something– I, for example, have zero interest in basketball and would really consider it a waste of time to develop my skills in that area. At some point, as we discover both our strengths and our interests, and we will start allocating time to the things that we care about the most (to help your focus on this: I tell my students to think about a problem they want to solve).

In the end, as someone who makes hiring (and firing) decisions, I will take someone with  good work ethic over someone who claims to have an inherent talent any day of the week. Talent is fantastic and also needed, but hard work can make up for a lack of talent– where talent without hard work will only get you so far.

Plus– just a tip– I have noticed over years of being on interview panels that the people who claim to possess amazing talent are often the people who disappoint the most when it comes to actually getting a job done. But those who are willing to admit that they have skills they are working on and things that they’d like to learn, but have a proven track record of being a hard worker? They will never let you down.

So what is this doing on my professional blog, rather than my personal one?

Because what Simon Sinek is talking about in this video, and what I have outlined here, in a nutshell, are why schools are failing. Schools as they are today were designed by people who were looking to create a workforce of assembly line and factory workers. And those schools were populated by kids who lived on farms, or if they did not, had other responsibilities at home– character building experiences were inherent. They came to school already knowing about nebulous topics like personal responsibility, accountability, effort, and the reward that comes from trying again. These are processes that cannot be automated. It’s the difference between mowing down a field of hay by hand, baling it, and selling it for very little money, using that money to re-invest in next year’s crop; and reading an article about that process. Even the most well-written article would be hard-pressed to help you understand the heartache, frustration, and rewards of farming.

Until schools wise up to the fact that they are designed to create workers for a workforce that no longer exists, using students that also no longer exist, and training teachers to teach these non-existent students in this totally outdated way, the system will continue to fail, and will eventually be pushed into total irrelevance.

Invictus

So; here is a piece of my truth.

Tomorrow I am beginning my last quarter of graduate school.

I just wanted to point this out because I was once one of “those” kids. I was once told– by hard-working and well-meaning and wonderful teachers– that I was not going to go on to college. Teachers who cared very deeply about me, and who thought I was a good student, would say things like, “Don’t feel bad. College isn’t in everyone’s future.” Or, “Not everyone is cut out for college.” I was once barred entry to a college prep history class because I was not “college material.” I had an advisor in high school refuse to help me with application materials to a private school because “why waste either of our time?” After I was in college, I had it even worse– professors who should have been dismissed for the way they treated me.

Equitable access to educational opportunities has become the driving force in my life. Because any poor kid can tell you that you never want to have more possessions than what you can carry with you on your back if you have to run in the middle of the night. And once I realized that when I learned something it meant that I could keep it forever, I was hooked. And I want that for everyone; not just for the ones who can afford it.

Don’t get me wrong. My teachers were wonderful people. They would have walked across hot coals every day if it meant that just one more of their students would graduate high school. But they had seen too many students just like me end up with student debt and no degree, because students like me didn’t just lack money, students like me also lacked a support system. It takes more than money, and unfortunately, it also takes more than smarts to muscle your way through a college degree. And though it is getting less relevant by the day, a college degree still opens doors that nothing else will. To being a teacher, for example– which is all I ever wanted to do in my entire life.

So to all my brave little lovelies– bright, capable, but impoverished, needy, hungry, cold, tired, and pushed around– I am here to tell you to keep dreaming. Don’t give up. We’re going to work together, you and I. And we’re going to change all their minds.