Saturday, March 27, 2010

In The Middle

This week, I had the opportunity to speak with many other professionals from around the state, middle school principals, superintendents, and NYSED associates. One such meeting with was Dr. John B. King, Jr., the NYSED Deputy Commissioner of P-12 Education. He outlined the current agenda from the Board of Regents and Commissioner of Education. One such item, Financial Crisis, was a topic which he spoke to with much concern. He conveyed to us the idea that the current crisis has initiated the essential question, “Are our investments in education worth doing?” He recited research figures from across the state indicating that less than two-thirds of our students are graduating. This figure becomes desperately worse in the big cities and epically worse for minority males. While many people don’t see the relationship of this statistic to their own districts and neighborhoods where graduation rates are good, it has certainly influenced the budget discussion. With a state-wide success rate (graduation) that wouldn’t be acceptable to most tax payers combined with a tremendous financial burden, I understand why they have asked this essential question.

This meeting with Dr. King, Jr. spurred a later debate among the middle level experts. Where would the middle-level be in what was said to be a three to four year crisis? Many middle school principals shared common experiences of cutting programs which led us to investigate the original foundations of middle schools. Is “middle school” a philosophy or is it a programmatic practice? For me, philosophy is paramount to the programs we offer. Our philosophy allows us to engage in what some perceive as alternate educational methods. Our programs are influenced by our philosophy. The issue comes when trying to explain the middle-level philosophy in defense of a program to someone who has never experienced it or only knows the antiquated junior high model.

Being of a scientific nature, I thought I’d quickly investigate the research behind the middle-level philosophy. I found volumes. Because middle schools are a fairly recent practice in comparison, the newest research is now based on actual test data, versus the original conceptual ideals. There is also a new publication which details much of this called, “Research and Resources – In Support of This We Believe.” Some other current articles are found below.

Student Achievement and the Middle School Concept -
Interdisciplinary Teaming -

Personally, I feel that promotion of the positive programs and outcomes should be the focus to the essential question. In looking to defend the middle, we should begin with the research and end with outcomes. To further corroborate these researched programs, one only needs to look as far as the Essential Elements of a Standards Based Middle School. These are a part of the Board of Regents Policy Statement (2003) regarding middle-level education.

AAK’s programs and philosophies are a model for the Board of Regents; however, budgetary issues cannot be ignored. As we endeavor to place an acceptable budget before the voters of this district, balance has become a primary concern. This balance is difficult when our philosophy is foreign to so many. My task has been and will remain the health and vitality of the middle school.

Thank you for being excellent ambassadors for the middle-level.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Should Have, Could Have

A simple thought for today. If you could travel back in time, what would you change - in your own behavior or in the school itself - to make your school experience better? Would it have been the organization and structure of the school? Would it have been how the teachers taught you? What about you as a student? Would you have made different decisions?

My mind is reeling with the possible changes that I would make.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Feel the Fire

This is an expression that I, the coach, often used to inspire and motivate my student-athletes. It was my belief that if you could find the passion of the moment then you would not only experience joy in what you were doing, you would also experience the success in what you were doing. This battle cry seemed to catch-on with the students and I began to hear it in the halls at school, “Hey Shank, do you feel the fire?” My instant reply would be, “Always.” As this credo edged into my classroom, I saw an immediate connection to my own excitable instructional style, but I saw more of an implication of this in the learning of content. Passion for math. I had it. Did my students?

We have all taught kids that we knew would grow up and do great things. From the moment we meet them there is just something about them that make them stand out from all the other kids. They would never settle for just average. They always have to be the best at everything. Whenever we assign a project they always have to go above and beyond what the other kids do. Whenever they are in PE they have to score the most baskets or run the furthest as well as the fastest. It’s never really a competition with other students, but a competition within themselves. They want to do better than they did the last time. They have ambition. They have drive. But above all else, they have passion.

Can you guess where I’m heading with this? That’s right. Not all of our students come to us with this innate zest for learning. We have to teach the kids we have, not the kids we want. So I searched for ways that we, as teachers, can help all of these other students find their passion. I found many great discussions and lots of great ideas. Here is just a sample of what I read from various teacher blogs and articles.
• Discovering one's passion is provoked by allowing students to make mistakes and find what they like through experimental learning.
• Educators must take genuine interest in students & get to know them before being able to encourage toward passions.
• Don't be afraid to invest a little extra time with them or for them. Sorry, but teaching isn't 9am-5pm. (I think that is why I see so many of you taking books and papers home. ;>)
• Passion entails risk, so we must create an environment where risk-taking and mistakes are ok.
• PBL is an avenue we use. Many call it problem/project based learning but it could easily be passion based learning.
• Sometimes I think we squash passion in the name of "order.” Let's not be afraid of "messy" education.
• Educators must model a passion for personal learning by regularly talking about what they themselves are learning.

Here are some of my thoughts...

Is it the job of the educator to find the passion for the student? Absolutely not. Is it the job of the teacher to crush the passions of our kids? Absolutely not. Alright, so maybe the way I just asked those two questions was a little harsh, but we all have probably experienced an educator who stifled a student’s passion for one thing or another. If we look at this as a continuum, with answers to the questions at either end a resounding, “NO,” then where should we strive to be?

I think that it depends on the individual child. The thing with passion is that sometimes kids don't really know what their passion is. That is when it takes an educator with an eye for identifying it. The key is to provide opportunities in the classroom that allow a student to explore and expand their understanding.

Some students need more help in finding their passion. A classroom that offers choice with assignments, different and varied assessment tools, and a global connection helps the passion.

I see passion in every classroom at AAK. But looking regionally and even statewide, I feel as educators, in order to help students find their passion, we have to have passion ourselves. We have to have passion for our job and the work we are doing. But above all else we have to have passion for those kids we have and make it known each and every day that we have passion for our teaching. We have to make sure we create environments that are comfortable for learning new things and safe enough for kids to make mistakes. And maybe then our kids will begin to discover what they really care about.

Thank you for Feeling the Fire in what you do. Thank you for providing our students with opportunities to experience this passion for learning.

Have a great weekend