Friday, March 18, 2016

Powerful Professional Learning

I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate to be participating in the Galileo Leadership Consortium, a two year learning opportunity focused on developing teacher leadership. Teacher leadership is the process by which teachers influence their colleagues, principals, and other members of the school community to improve teaching and learning practices with the aim of increased student learning and achievement. It is truly my most powerful professional learning experience to date. And I’ve been around for a long time!

We are frequently asked to explore our core beliefs and reflect upon our impact on others, primarily by examining Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. With passionate and dynamic facilitation by Joyce Fouts we are able to see how Covey’s habits can unlock the door to increased productivity both personally and professionally and I am constantly inspired to become a more compassionate, effective teacher leader.

Today we revisited Habit 4: Think Win-Win, the habit of mutual benefit. Common practices we see in this area include comparing, competing, and people feeling threatened by others’ success. Being insensitive to the needs of others, considering only your own needs and expecting to win or lose are consequences of a belief in the paradigm that there is only so much, and the more you get, the less there is for me. In contrast, a highly effective paradigm leads to the belief that there is plenty out there for everyone, and more to spare. This leads to an abundance mentality, the ability to balance courage and consideration, considering other people’s wins as well as your own and creating Win-Win agreements.

This abundance mentality is clearly effective according to the findings of Project Aristotle, a three year study by Google to examine why some teams are more successful than others. It was discovered that two group norms were shared by virtually all of Google’s most effective teams:
  • Equal air time – In highly effective teams, members participated approximately the same amount during meetings. “As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,” said Google researcher Anita Woolley. “But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.” 
  • Interpersonal sensitivity – Effective team members were able to intuit how colleagues felt by their tone of voice, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues. The members of less-effective teams were less tuned in to their teammates’ feelings.

Apparently these critical team traits help to create “psychological safety” – a team culture in which individuals have “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up,” says Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied high-functioning groups. “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

For an educator, this is valuable information to help address the Narcissism Epidemic. Living and working in the age of entitlement we are witnessing:
  • Inflated feelings of superiority
  • Vanity
  •  Materialism
  • Lack of empathy
  • Relationship problems
  •  Egotism
  • Higher propensity for anger and bullying
More than ever before, we need to focus on helping our learning communities succeed through compassion. By becoming profoundly “other focused” we can develop empathy, find purpose, and feel happier and more fulfilled. Building a compassion culture not only boosts health and inspires loyalty, it also leads to emotional well being, effective collaboration and high productivity.

This post captures my learning from just a couple of hours at the Galileo Leadership Academy. My goal for the time I have remaining in this cadre is to soak up as much knowledge as I can about the skills, and dispositions of teacher leaders including servant leadership, collaboration, facilitation, best practices, action research, and systems thinking. I know it’s going to be an incredible learning journey!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Power of Storytelling

Today was one of those crazy hectic days when I felt like I chased my tail from dawn until dusk, but it was also a day full of unexpected connections and wonderful surprises. Most importantly, today I was reminded of the power of storytelling.

My day began with a one hundred and sixty mile drive to Kalamazoo to present at the Middle Elementary and Middle School Principals Association (MEMPSA) annual conference. I was invited by my principal, Mark Morawski, to co-present a breakout session focused on project based learning. I’m always happy to talk about the amazing work our students do, so the drive flew by.

Upon arrival I was, however, disappointed to discover that I had missed the keynote by George Couros but I was lucky enough to be able to catch the last ten minutes of one of his breakout sessions. George shared a personal story about a time when he was very vulnerable and flustered in front of an audience. It was so refreshing to know that even my educational heroes have those moments too! In that moment George Couros became more fallible, more human and more approachable to me. I was so pleased that he chose to share it because the ultimate message was powerful: We need to make the positives so loud, that the negatives are almost impossible to hear. In just ten minutes I had my greatest take away from the conference!

Shortly after our session ended I jumped back in the car to make the three hour drive back to Detroit to attend an Engag(ed) Exchange event centered around design thinking and empathy within the education space. I was so happy to reconnect with some amazing educators that I haven’t seen in a while and also thrilled to make some new connections. The evening was launched with an amazing performance of Lost Voices by two students from the EMU Poetry Society. Nicholas Provenzano was the master of ceremonies and introduced us to Deborah Parizek of the Henry Ford Learning Institute, Shelley Danner of Challenge Detroit and Cornetta Lane from One Detroit Credit Union. Each presenter shared their stories about design thinking and I was most inspired by Daniel B, a student of the College for Creative Studies who even shared his grandma with us!

I heard so many stories today that inspired, uplifted and fascinated me. They reminded me of the need for us to share our own stories. We need to share our stories with our students to remind them we are human too. By sharing snippets from our daily lives, our fears, our failings our frustrations we are telling our students that we trust them, that we are fallible, that we are approachable. It’s also important for us to share our stories with our peers and colleagues. We need to share our successes, our epic fails, our struggles and our ambitions, for it is in the sharing that we build empathy and meaningful relationships.

I was also reminded of the need to LISTEN to stories. Our students are very adept at revealing only the parts of themselves that they want us to see, and sometimes they do not reveal their best selves. But if we begin to truly tune into their stories, not just the assignments they write but the snippets of their pain points or happy places that they consciously or inadvertently share with us, then we can begin to see their best selves. The courageous kid, the hardworking kid, the persistent kid will be revealed and we can come to know them. Knowing fosters appreciation, appreciation fosters relationships, relationships foster trust and trust fosters connection. When we connect, we learn and grow together.

My crazy hectic wonderful day is coming to an end but my commitment to share stories and hear stories is refreshed. What stories did you share today? What stories did you hear today?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

It's Been A Long Year Without You My Friend

"Grief is a journey, often perilous and without clear direction, that must be taken. The experience of grieving cannot be ordered or categorized, hurried or controlled, pushed aside or ignored indefinitely. It is inevitable as breathing, as change, as love. It may be postponed, but it will not be denied."
Molly Fumia

As a teacher, I spend about the same amount of time with my colleagues as I do with my family. For thirteen wonderful years I have been a member of the 5/6 team at Birmingham Covington School. We formed, stormed, normed and were performing like a well-oiled machine. The machine broke in January with the death of one of our core members.

Fitz was not only a teacher at BCS, she was also a former student and she was the heart of our crew. She was a passionate educator who strived to help her students find joy in reading and writing. She brought the same energy to our team and inspired us to work harder, push further and demand more of ourselves and our students each and every day. Most importantly she made us laugh. Oh, she made us laugh!

Fitz,your passing rocked our entire community. You touched the lives of so many parents, students and colleagues in countless ways and your impact is immeasurable. The 5/6 team shattered, so heartbroken at losing you so young, so devastated for your daughters to whom you were devoted and whose lives will never be the same. But as educators we knew we had to help our students first. We have wiped away tears, listened to students tell their favorite stories about you, understood when they lost focus, struggled to concentrate or just felt anxious or sad. In nurturing the youngest members of our community through this difficult time we have postponed our own grief and battled on to make it the end of the year. But summer is here, the pace has slowed, responsibilities have eased and now it is time.

I miss you. I miss you bouncing into school in your ridiculous spring heeled shoes with a twinkle in your eye. I miss your enthusiasm, your happiness, your capacity for mischief. I miss our rituals, our daily lunches where we shared all of the ups and downs of life; the struggles, the joys. I miss sharing books with you and spending hours on the phone discussing the themes and plot twists, the characters and how they made us laugh or tore at our heart strings. I miss your honesty and vulnerability which you were always prepared to share. I miss your courage and your fearlessness in standing up for what you believed to be best for kids. I miss your wit, your fire, your vivacity, voraciousness and vim. I miss your aches and pains, your smiles and giggles. I miss my friend and I always will, but now I am ready.

I’m ready to come out from under the cloud and start thinking and writing again. I’m ready to embrace a world without you and face the challenges it brings. I know when we return to school in the fall I will be slapped with reminders of you everywhere and there will be sudden impulses to cry as the realization of your loss sweeps over me again. But my sadness will be eased with the support and love of my 5/6 team, my work family, your work family. We will continue to work hard and be the best educators we can, forever inspired and forever changed for having known and loved you.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Trust, Respect and Relationships.

As teachers we are often stuck in our own bubble so when I was offered the chance to visit Kent Innovation High (KIH) this morning I jumped at the opportunity. KIH is a relatively young school, opened in 2011, and it has a unique project-based learning focus. Students spend the first part of their day there studying English, Math, Science and Social Studies in an interdisciplinary setting before returning to their home schools for a more traditional experience in electives and extra-curricular activities.

 Upon entering I was immediately struck by learning space envy. Classrooms are huge light and airy spaces with glass walls. Because of the interdisciplinary approach, each room can hold fifty students and two teachers and there are multiple big screens around the room. Hallways serve as collaborative learning spaces with couches, booths and tables fitted with screens the students can hook up their laptops to. My meeting room had four tables, each with their own big screen and it was a joy for me to be able to fully participate in the presentation without having to strain my old and tired eyes to see a screen at the front of the room.

After a quick introduction to the school by American Studies teacher Mike Kaechele we were divided into small groups and handed over to students for a tour. Each student confidently shook our hands and introduced themselves with full eye contact, and while that seems like a small thing, I knew by this first interaction that I was in a special place. My guides Megan and Katie immediately engaged us in conversation as we walked, telling us what the school was about, what each space was for and how classes were organized. They assuredly answered all of our questions and I thought they must have been hand-picked to impress visitors. As we went from room to room however, I began to think that any of the 400 students in the building could have conducted the tour just as well. In every classroom students greeted us naturally and informally and were happy to tell us what they were doing. I never felt like we were interrupting as there was a learning buzz and relaxed atmosphere in every room , with students and teachers engaged in independent, group and class activities.

My learning space envy grew as we visited classrooms with tall whiteboard walls, high cafĂ© tables, stools, and couches alongside regular tables. In the third classroom we visited I realized that I hadn’t seen a teacher’s desk anywhere. Megan showed me where the teachers’ desks where-all located in one room alongside each other. Later in the day teacher Jeff Bush told me that he felt this alternative version of a teachers lounge was one of the most important factors in the success of the building. It facilitates deep and meaningful communication between the staff as well as encouraging collaboration and sharing. Another thing that was notably absent was lockers. Open cubbies could be found outside classrooms stuffed with coats, instruments and backpacks and when I asked Megan about that her response was: It’s all about trust here. We are a family.

This sentiment was repeated several times during the final portion of my visit when we sat with a panel of students. I was so impressed with how articulate these young men and women were as they shared their own learning journeys. Colin told us how he had repeated the same math class at his more traditional home school, despite knowing the content, because he struggled to turn in homework assignments. He reported that he is flourishing at KIH because of the positive mindset of his facilitators (teachers) and the fact that he doesn’t get homework. He gets told what he needs to do and he is trusted to do it when he chooses to do it. Other students enthused about the constant feedback they got from their facilitators because that meant they knew how to improve their assignments and work towards mastery , a stark contrast to their more traditional home schools, where they fail but aren’t quite sure why. And the feedback isn’t a one way street. Reese explained that students provide constant feedback to their facilitators so that they too can learn and grow.

All students were completely aware of the standards they were working towards and appreciated the variety of assessments methods used by their teachers such as oral tests, written responses and one to one interviews, made possible with two teachers in every classroom. While rigor was evident, the most striking aspect of this school was the significance placed upon relationships. When asked what was challenging about being a student at KIH Colin told us the first two weeks were challenging because you have to flip your mindset. You have to learn how to work with others, how to be responsible how to focus on learning about each other. Every single hour of every single day begins with students sharing good news, every student knows each others name and this simple five minute sharing allows them to get to know each other. Keeley shared this with us:

I’m in love with this school. The facilitators are alive and alert and love what they do. They raise us to be like a family, we are comfortable with each other, we trust each other, we value each other. They want to engage us, to learn about our home lives and what is happening with us. We strive to succeed, to be the best we can be, to be diverse and honest; and the facilitators want us to succeed too.

So much about this school was impressive: the physical space, the technology integration, the 1:1 laptop program, the level of student voice, the interdisciplinary approach, the ping pong table, and the project-based focus. But for me personally, what really makes it a special place is the omnipresent emphasis on trust, respect and relationships. I had the opportunity to chat briefly with some staff members over lunch, but I’m hoping that I get to spend more time learning from them at the NovaNow conference in February. If you get offered the chance to attend this event, jump at it!

Inspirational pin-board in student bathroom

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Pauline and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Last night I got home closer to 9pm than I wanted for the second night in a row, knowing I wouldn’t be home until the same time tonight because of parent/teacher conferences. Utterly drained, I went straight to bed, safe in the knowledge that I would get up at 5:30 am with plenty of time to wake my kids, feed them, prepare lunches, iron clothes, drop them off at kids club and arrive at school for my 7:30 am meeting. Today began with my husband shaking me awake with the news that the alarm had failed to go off and it was 7:10 am. And so began my Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad day.

In utter panic I jumped up, dragged my son out of bed and while toasting his frozen pancakes I texted a colleague to alert her to the fact that I wasn’t going to make my meeting and asked her to look out for a student who I had invited to join us. Her reply was: No worries! Scouring the clean laundry pile and pantry I threw together outfits and lunches, splashed my face with cold water and dragged my boy towards the car while shoving him into his coat. I don’t recall whether or not I brushed my hair!

As soon as I opened the garage I knew I was in danger of not making it in time for my first class of the day let alone my meeting. Of course it was snowing and the roads were a disaster. After twenty minutes I had traveled a total of two miles, experienced inertia first hand as my car resisted the brakes and drifted into oncoming traffic, and realized that I was utterly decaffeinated. Time to call for back up! Blearily negotiating the roads I called two of my 5/6 colleagues for assistance. Both were stuck in traffic but assured me that they would arrive ahead of me, organize my kids and get my first class up and running. I got to my son’s school relieved that my first class was covered but still rushed down the hallway to drop him safely at Kids Club. That’s when I epically wiped out. Both feet went up in the air and I landed flat on my back. Since my hip has been bothering me for the last two weeks this wasn’t the greatest thing that could have happened. In extreme pain I assured my kid I was okay and once he verified the fact that we were alone in the hallway, I took a moment to remain prostrate, lament my fortune and gather my thoughts about my scattered life.

I signed him in with a kiss goodbye and limped back to my car. I entered my class three minutes after the bell rang and my teaching partner Rick Joseph was there, with both of our classes, taking attendance and getting them set for the day. We arranged our special schedule, raided the fridge in the teacher lounge for a breakfast consisting of leftovers from the PTSA conference dinner the night before and had a great morning of learning. I introduced a cartoon activity I thought the students would be excited about and when one of them asked if he could do a Powerpoint version instead, I felt good about the fact that my kids feel comfortable negotiating with me about how they demonstrate their learning.

 During lunch I prepared guest teacher plans for tomorrow when I will continue conferences for my math students, and my 5/6 science partner Tammy Brown brought me back a much needed, heartwarming soup lunch!Conferences began at 1pm and at 3pm my partner had to head for the airport to present at the NCTE conference in Washington D.C. Happy for him to go and learn and grow, I was also sad to complete the evening without him as it’s always good to have my other half to bounce off during conferences. A wonderful dinner was provided for us by my principal and vice principal and I headed back to the final three hours of conferences reenergized, albeit nervous about the continuing snow fall, the state of the roads, and the fact I had no snowbrush with me to clean up my car. 

At 6pm a parent arrived late for her conference and was completely understanding of the fact that the full schedule meant I couldn’t fit her in without inconveniencing all my other appointments for the night. She left happy to reschedule and, I suspect, unaware of how truly appreciative I was of her flexibility. Throughout the rest of the night I was glad to share the successes and future goals of my students, and receive well wishes for my transition into my new role as instructional specialist. One of my last students of the night arrived with a cake he had made for me, and  I headed for the car park ready to deal with my inevitably snow buried car.To my amazement I found my truck free and clear of snow, in stark contrast to it’s neighbors. I can only imagine that someone had blessed me with a random act of kindness and cleared my car for me. It was such a relief at the end of a long day and permitted me to concentrate on getting home in time to kiss my own children goodnight.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that when you work at Birmingham Covington School there really is no such thing as a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad day. I am so lucky to work with an amazing team of educators who I can turn to in times of trauma and I know they have my back, no questions asked. They nurture and support me and I cannot express my gratitude for them enough. My students are total troopers and have the skills and maturity to bend and adapt to the flow of an unusual day. Their parents have the unique ability to make me feel like a super star and I am honored to know and serve them. My bucket overflows tonight as I check my alarm is set, and prepare to do it all again tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Walking With Giants-Literally!

This weekend I was honored to walk with giants around Washington DC. The giants were thirty of my past and present students who were invited to present at the 2014 National Forum on Character Education.

The journey began last Thursday as we piled on to the bus at 5:30am. I was expecting a few moans and groans about the early take off, but was only met with eager and enthusiastic comments as we loaded suitcases, pillows, blankets and jewelry making equipment. The ten hour travel time flew by as we watched movies, chatted and played games and I was amazed since I’ve been on much shorter bus rides with students that seemed to last for eons!

Our first stop was the Air Force Memorial which seemed so fitting as the purpose is to show pride in our past and faith in our future. The monument itself soars 270 feet high and I was so moved to be there in the presence of students who have learned how to soar themselves. Etched on granite walls are the three core values of the Air Force.: Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do. I read aloud the following quote on the wall: The future is always decided by those who put their imagination to work, who challenge the unknown, and who are not afraid to risk failure.An eighth grade student standing next to me said, “That’s us Mrs. Roberts isn’t it?” That was the first of many teary moments I had in the presence of these giants over the next few days.

 Walking into the conference hotel at 7am on Saturday morning heading a group of thirty children caused quite a stir. As people stopped and stared at us I saw my students shoulders go back and their chins go up. They realized for the first time the true significance of their presence there and they immediately adopted a demeanor that they maintained throughout the remainder of the trip. They were proud to be invited, to share their incredible story, promote their project and to represent their school, which they did impeccably. They set up their booth with no adult direction or assistance and began to engage passing adults and making jewelry to sell. As each team rotated through their booth shift I was amazed at how well they articulated their passion and commitment.

I hope this Halloween stands out in their memories as much as it will stand out in mine. Dressed in their costumes we embarked on a nighttime tour of the war memorials and the Lincoln memorial and they managed to remain respectful, deferential and deeply interested in what the tour guide was telling us. So many of them during that tour thanked me for the opportunity and told me how glad they were that they gave up their usual trick or treating routine to be there.

The next day, despite being tired they were outstanding during their presentation. They so eloquently demonstrated to other teachers what is possible when teachers get out of the way and let students explore their passions and curiosities and allow them to fail forward. Feedback from attendees included:

"Empower and trust the students! Fail Forward! Outstanding, Meaningful, and all around Inspiring!"

"Each of you did a great job presenting. I'm inspired to listen to my students and step back to follow their lead."

"I want to make our service learning more meaningful. You guys are awesome!"

The students' own reflections included:

"In Washington I learned that our project is not only raising money for Chilipula, but showing the world that no project is too big for kids." Vivian, 6th grader.
" I learned what can happen when a group comes together for a good cause. I learned that sometimes kids can do things that adults can't, and we should all step up to that." Helen, 7th grader.

"If you give students a voice through a meaningful project they will each become a leader in their own way." Jake, 6th grader.

I can honestly say I have never been prouder as an educator! Despite the fact that this group consisted of 3-8 graders, some of whom had never really met before, they bonded together in their dedication to Project Cope. For me personally, it was a joy to bring together past and present students and be able to see how much they have learned and grown. Their true character was reflected in the way they interacted with each other and the attendees of the conference. There were too many examples of kindness, perseverance, integrity, honesty and responsibility for me to mention but I will treasure every one.

This trip would not have been possible without the support of the BCS PTSA and the Birmingham Education Foundation (BEF). Their financial support made it possible for all our students to participate in this incredible learning experience. When asked for our students to present at the national forum they never imagined we would bring 30!

A special thanks to the parents and staff members who chaperoned this trip. The logistics involved in navigating a group of 30 middle schoolers through a two day national conference was overwhelming but their willingness to do whatever it takes and ability to support one another is what makes BCS such a great place to be.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Tamra Nast our school counselor who worked tirelessly with Cindy Balicki to make this opportunity a reality for our students. Principal Mark Morawski thank you for supporting the trip and Linda Stone , and Mat Brown thank you for joining us and being amazing colleagues that I am lucky to work with every day.

The theme of the conference was inspiring greatness. These giants, these students, inspire me every day. Who inspires you? More importantly, how do you inspire others?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Walking With Giants

Several weeks ago I posted this on Facebook:

As the first hectic week of school comes to a close I am reminded once again that I am so fortunate to walk with giants every day. Not giants in stature, but giants in terms of the size of their hearts, the strength of their spirit, and the depths of their understanding and humanity. I'm humbled by both students and colleagues, who uplift and inspire me beyond words. Look for the giants that surround you-they are often disguised by humility.

It occurred to me that I should share their stories as they are key characters in my own story. This is the first of a series of posts about the giants in my life. I hope they inspire you as they have inspired me.

On Friday morning I opened an email with the following attachment:

This is the culmination of months of collaboration between one of my students and Grant Anderson and his mother, Julie Anderson. Grant and his mom came to visit my school last year as part of a disability workshop. Grant shared with my students the story of how he suffered a traumatic brain injury several years earlier in a car accident. Two hundred and twenty students sat enthralled as he shared images and movies of his grueling recovery process. His message was clear: work hard, persevere, and remain positive. One of Grant’s passions is music and before long he had all of us singing along to one of his own compositions. He touched every single person in the room that day, but he especially inspired one student in particular.

She had written lyrics for a song about our school partnership with Project Cope, a non-profit organization working to eliminate poverty in rural Zambia in a single generation. Having no composition experience, the song and melody was trapped inside her head, but in Grant she recognized an opportunity. We asked Grant and his mom if they could help and over the next few months they visited school several times to work on the song with my student. Seeing the product of their efforts on Friday reduced me to tears. 

I am humbled and honored to know people like Grant and his mom, giving so generously of their time not only to support a good cause, but to help a little girl realize a dream. They truly are giants, teaching both myself and my students much more than any written curriculum could.  If you are looking for a guest speaker to inspire your students I cannot recommend Grant highly enough. Click on the image below to learn more about Grant’s story, as he was deservedly recognized as someone who makes a difference on The Heart of Detroit. Who are the giants who make a difference in the lives of you and your students?