A Message To NJHS Inductees

I was flattered, humbled and a little bit incredulous when several people approached me after the National Junior Honor Society induction ceremony to ask for a copy of my speech.  I thought this forum might be a good one to share it with others, so I pasted it below.

Membership in National Junior Honor Society is dependent upon outstanding performance in Scholarship, Service, Leadership, Character and Citizenship.  I’d like to focus my brief comments tonight on the first of these areas.

Scholarship is the very first requirement for entry into the NJHS, and only those with all A’s and B’s are eligible.  That means that the students on the stage are among the best students in what is arguably the best middle school in the State of Indiana.  Though your parents and I are proud of you all, I hope that you take your induction into this Honor Society not as an accomplishment, but as a challenge.  I ask you to please take this event this evening as a recognition of your potential – as ZMS’s statement that you have the ability to become something great if you so choose.

I recently came across a quote from Mark Twain which read, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”  In other words, if you don’t use the tools that you have been blessed with, you might as well not have them.  I would go even further to state that just using these gifts is not enough – using them to the best of your ability is what it takes to not cheat yourself. 

I was reminded of Twain’s quote when I watched a documentary entitled “Two Million Minutes” in which the lives of students from the United States were compared to those from India and China.  All of the students were top students in their respective countries.  The two American students were from central Indiana just like you.  One was top ten in her class, and the other was a National Merit Semifinalist.  Both of these, of course, are significant honors to take pride in.  I had to cringe, however, when I heard these students say things like, “I got an ‘A’ on that test and I didn’t even read the book,” and “I got a scholarship because of my PSAT score, and I didn’t even prepare for it.”  Both of these students appeared to be looking for the maximum achievement out of minimum effort.  They believed that they were beating the system.  I believe they were cheating themselves.  When your teachers and parents encourage you to take on an academic endeavor, they do so in order that you will invest in yourself and come out a better person.  Getting an “A” is much less important than knowing something that you didn’t know before.  Succeeding is less important than learning and growing

John F. Kennedy once defined happiness as “the full use of your powers along the lines of excellence.”  This definition explains to us that an investment of one’s self is a necessary and meaningful component of being happy.  It means that it is important for you to raise the bar to your highest possible level, not to simply clear a bar that someone else has established for you.  By virtue of the fact that you are here tonight, we have established that you are clearing the bar that we have set for you.  I encourage you to ask yourself, “Is that bar high enough?”

I will leave you to struggle with this rhetorical question, and I hope that you will keep it in the forefront as you make decisions in the future.  I offer you my congratulations for your induction into this prestigious group.  I’ll let you decide whether it is an achievement, or a sign of better things to come.

The Ruminations of a Former 10-Year-Old

old_classroomI am an educator.

There was a time in my life when I attempted to ignore the gravitational pull of my vocation, but I know now that the outcome was inevitable.  I remember the day the die was cast.  Mrs. Johnson, try as she might, could not make a math concept clear to one of my 5th grade classmates.  I knew what she meant, and I knew what he heard, and I knew the conflicting thoughts were hurtling toward an intersection of despair and frustration.  It wasn’t my place, but I just had to intervene.  The subsequent success left my classmate and my teacher relieved, and left me with the unspoken knowledge that I would one day have a classroom of my own.

That day in Mrs. Johnson’s class was the first time in my recollection that I considered instructional best practice, but it has remained a focus of mine ever since.  Thirty-four years later, I find myself discussing this very thing with the staff at Zionsville Middle School.  Instrutional best practice has changed quite a bit since my days at Lindbergh Elementary School.  Conceptually what was good practice then is still good practice today.  The difference is the number of tools that currently exists to allow teachers and students to use these practices as never before. 

It’s an exciting time to be an educator.  With 21st century tools, the means of getting to the minds of students are more numerous than ever before, and yet precision is enhanced as well, making improvements in both quality and quantity.  Access to the Internet provides a window to the world for our students, and authenticity — which Mrs. Johnson had to manufacture as best she could — abounds.  Collaboration, always an educational goal, is enhanced by giving access to documents to multiple users, allowing for multiple editors and the ability to view changes in real-time.  The audience for student work, an essential source for student motivation and purpose, is expanded beyond the eyes of the teacher.  Access to computers has fundamentally, for the better, changed the what, where, and how of education.  Exciting times, indeed.

It’s also a trying time to be an educator, however.  Media and politicians seem particularly interested in highlighting any shortcoming within the realm of public education.  Taxes, high-stakes testing, budget shortfalls, accountability, and failing schools dominate the discourse.  Funny, the word “learning” is rarely part of the discussion.  That is a pity.  Even worse, none of the things listed above really has anything to do with children or their learning experience.

Our 1:1 program is not the way of the future, as many would describe it, but the way of the present — and even then it was a few years late in its arrival.  But more and more I’m beginning to understand that we are making a mistake in calling it a “program.”  It is not a program with a step-by-step procedure or a start date and an end point.  It is not a separate curriculum.  It is using best practice.  It is using every tool available to make a child’s learning experience the most it can be.  It is exposure to authentic and varied materials.  It is developing a way of thinking and problem-solving not possible with traditional tools.  It is education as it should be, and any other way is inferior.  Our task, ultimately, is to prepare students for their future, not for our past.

And so I find myself in a similar position as that little boy in the 5th grade classroom.  The potential exists that children could be denied the tools necessary for their 21st century education — the education of today.  Every survey that we have ever done indicates that our teachers, students and parents believe that the 1:1 environment is more effective and preferable.  Proliferation of 1:1 instruction for ZCS, however, has met some opposition, and the future of expansion hangs in the balance at the next school board meeting: May 24 at 6 pm.  As I have professed, I am an educator, not a political activist.  As such, I don’t call for protests or demonstrations, but I do strongly suggest that parents advocate for the best possible instructional experience available for their children.  If you have a thought on the matter, do not hesitate to share it with me, our superintendent, or our board members. 

Lindbergh Elementary closed its doors over 20 years ago.  No doubt it produced several future educators.  The same is true for ZMS.  My only hope is that the ones chosen to follow this line of work do so after being inspired by best practice, not out of frustration with bad examples.

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A Vision Cast

IMG_1415For many of us, Spring Break offers a time to get away from it all, to find a remote beach, to bask in the warm glow of the coastal sunshine, to hear nothing but the crashing of powerful waves as they reach the shore.  While this sound is immense, it provides a delectable white noise that leaves one alone with one’s thoughts, an enjoyable solitude void of the bluster of everyday life’s trivialities.  In the education arena these days, white noise is necessary to allow those of us in the field to focus on our real mission: creating student learning and growth.  Talk of tax caps, the state’s failure to meet economic predictions, budget shortfalls, staff reductions, ISTEP+ scores, graduation rates, and races to the top are all topics of distraction.  While none of these issues is trivial, each takes away from the meaningful discussions about teaching and learning.

A few days back, as I waded through several educational blogposts, I ran across one that particularly intrigued me.  The topic was the new national educational technology plan, and the post suggested that the U.S. Department of Education had successfully created a vision for 21st century education.  I quickly followed the link to the document entitled “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology.”  As I opened the document and looked through it, I was metaphorically moved to a tropical paradise.  I read:

“The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students’ daily lives and the reality of their futures. In contrast to traditional classroom instruction, this requires that we put students at the center and empower them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions. A core set of standards-based concepts and competencies should form the basis of what all students should learn, but beyond that students and educators should have options for engaging in learning: large groups, small groups, and work tailored to individual goals, needs, interests, and prior experience of each learner. By supporting student learning in areas that are of real concern or particular interest to them, personalized learning adds to its relevance, inspiring higher levels of motivation and achievement.

“In addition, technology provides access to more learning resources than are available in classrooms and connections to a wider set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors outside the classroom. On-demand learning is now within reach, supporting learning that is life-long and life-wide.”   

I remember where I was when ordinary citizens took sledge hammers to the Berlin Wall, when the space shuttle Columbia tragically exploded during its ascent, and when the Colts beat the Patriots on the way to winning the Super Bowl.  Similarly, I believe I will always remember the day when our nation’s DOE recognized the need to employ all of the tools available to us in making our classrooms relevant and meaningful, and in order to structure learning based on an individual student’s needs, abilities, and interests.  I am thrilled that the technology plan for the nation’s schools sees technology use as a means to an end, not as a goal in and of itself.  I am elated that technology is not viewed as a one-way delivery system for one-size-fits-all content, but rather as a vehicle to differentiated content and as an instrument to create meaningful, relevant, and connected student work.

I am also proud that Zionsville Middle School is well down this road.  Oftentimes a document such as this one produces as thought such as, “Well, that sounds great, but how would we ever make that work?”   Thanks to a supportive community and a visionary, hard-working teaching staff, Zionsville Middle School is tasking itself not just with making it work, but with making it the best it can be for the benefit of our students.

May you enjoy your Spring Break, and find relaxation and happiness whatever your endeavor.  The knowledge that your child’s school embodies in the present what others envision for the future may not be your equivalent to a tropical island getaway, but I do hope it can provide some white noise amidst the dour education headlines of the day.

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ZCS Collects 1:1 Feedback

As was our practice during our pilot 1:1 program (2008-2009), teachers, students and parents recently pariticipated in a survey in an effort to help us learn about and assess our one-to-one initiative.  This year’s data include responses from Zionsville Middle Sschool and Zionsville West Middle School.  An astounding 91% of the ZMS parents responded to the survey! 

Below are the links to the survey results:

Teacher Survey

Student Survey

Parent Survey

ZMS 5th Graders Discuss 4th to 5th Transition

With the parent meeting for 4th grade to 5th grade transition fast approaching, I began to think about how I might describe to a new group of parents what their child would be experiencing next school year.  It occurred to me that it wasn’t my voice that parents needed to hear.  Why not ask experts?  As a result of this line of thought, I asked 7 students if they would be willing to sit for an interview.  I posed 5 simple questions to each of them.  Their answers, like those of any eleven year old, are refreshingly candid.

Click below to watch the video:


ISTEP Is Upon Us

jeopardyI imagine myself on the set of the game show Jeopardy.  Alex Trebek reminds the contestants that we must respond in the form of a question.  On the big board flash the categories, and the game begins.  The first clue pops up, and I click my buzzer confidently.  I know this one!  Alex reads the clue: “ISTEP.”  I respond: “How do I begin to walk, Alex?”  Alex now knows two things: It’s going to be a long show, and the parting gifts will be for me tonight.

All Hoosiers know, of course, that ISTEP is really our state’s standardized test.  The exam’s format changed last year, and is still in flux a bit from last year’s version.  ZMS students will be taking part one of the exam on Tuesday and Wednesday (March 2nd and 3rd).  This part of the test is more open-ended than the next, and sudents will be required, for example, to show work in math and respond to writing prompts.

The second part of the exam will occur within the window of April 26-May 7.  The DOE has encouraged us to take part two of the exam online this year, the first time it has been available in this format.  This portion is multiple choice only.

ISTEP is an assessment to determine mastery of grade level standards.  In other words, it assesses whether students meet a minimum level in that particular grade level’s curriculum.  This contrasts with the NWEA exam (also administered in April) which measures student growth irrespective of grade level.  It adjusts to and pinpoints the student’s level of mastery.  (The NWEA exam is also an online, multiple choice exam).  The ISTEP assessment determines if a student is working at grade level, and the NWEA shows student growth over time for students whether they are at, below, or above grade level.

Results of these exams can be very helpful for individual students and for our institution.  If for example, a student does not pass the ISTEP, it is important to see if (s)he is still exhibiting growth, and then to respond accordingly.  The same holds true for students well above grade level.  Yes, they will pass the ISTEP, but are they still exhibiting growth over time?  Sometimes the answer to that question is no, and if that is the case, it is up to us to figure out why.  As a school, it is important for us to recognize trends and patterns in order to know whether our curriculum is properly aligned and whether our instructional strategies are effective.

Testing has become a political football over the years, and it is both praised in some camps and vilified in others.  I have had parents tell me they chose to send their kids to our school because of our students’ standardized test success, and had others tell me that all we care about is our test scores.  I suppose we are proud that our students fare well on the assessment.  When I consider other response options (apathy, disdain), it seems our choice is proper.

So if “ISTEP” did pop up on Final Jeopardy, what would be the correct response?  I can hear the music playing in my head as I consider what to write next.  “Why should students eat a good breakfast on Tuesday and Wednesday?”  Nah.  “Why do students need to bring and sharpen multiple number 2 pencils next week?”  May I phone a friend?  Darn, wrong game show.  Hurriedly I write, “What required assessment will ZMS students take next week in hopes to determine whether the student is working at grade level and whether the school is performing appropriately?”  The timpani sounds the final two notes of the theme song.  Alex explains that he loves my answer as he brushes his mustache, but tells me that contestants without money don’t get to play Final Jeopardy.

I knew I should have played Deal or No Deal.

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School Reform, Accountability, and Finance

school-moneyGrab a newspaper, watch the news, scan the  blogosphere and you are quite likely to see stories about the business of schools, and they are primarily in three areas: school reform, accountability, and school finance.  The pieces on these three categories are national, statewide, and local, giving one the impression that the situation in schools is dire, and that all schools share the same issue.  While I completely agree that all schools have challenges, I also believe firmly that each school has a different set of circumstances and needs.  Unfortunately, as I wade through the news, I rarely find a depiction that mirrors our situation in this school community, even though Zionsville has a story to tell in each of the areas.

School reform is a topic that has been around for quite some time.  The post-Sputnik push for more math and science and the 1983 study “A Nation at Risk” are two examples proving that our nation has examined the need and called for reform for quite some time.  This desire for reform has not quelled, nor should it, but the type of reform needed varies from one community to the next.  Recently, much discussion has focused upon teacher licensing, specifically that content-area teachers should hold degrees in their content area, not “lesser” education majors.  Our local practice renders this discussion moot.  ZMS science teachers hold chemistry and biology degrees, English teachers are English majors, etc.  The statewide discussion is valid and important.  Teachers need to be qualified, and there are schools that have teachers teaching out of their areas, or without extensive coursework in their content area.  That’s simply not our situation.  The point is that the need for reform — or, as I prefer to look at it, continuous improvement — is as real here as it is anywhere else (click here to read a previous post about school reform), but the type of improvement necessary is distinctly different, and the broader discussion misses the mark or is completely misleading in our school community’s context.

Accountability has been in vogue for an extended period, as well.  Calls to raise graduation rates, raise graduation requirements, and raise standards are all evidence of increased awareness of student and school accountability.  We use words like “high stakes” to signify the importance of what is to be gained or lost by the  movement.  As with the previous topic, accountability has different meanings in the various contexts.  Test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates and the like are all areas in which our community will lead.  Dare I say that it is a foregone conclusion that ZMS will perform well in these areas?  Is meeting these minimum standards holding our school accountable?  I would argue that multiple choice, “give me the right answer” testing is a low bar, and we should be accountable for more: for teaching our students to analyze, theorize, to state and support opinions, to develop hypotheses and then prove or refute them.  Accountability for us is to make certain that students well above grade-level are challenged, and that students below grade-level are supported appropriately until that is no longer true.  “Race to the Top” suggests that there is an end to the quest, and a competition among educational entities.  This seems misguided to me — there is no end for the need to improve, and schools compete against ignorance, not one another.

School finance is another area that has been front and center across the entire nation.  Before I bemoan a single thing, let me be clear in stating that schools make up a large portion of the State’s budget, that the State is short on funds, and the need for schools to be part of the money saving solution is necessary.  Frankly, I don’t know how else the State could make it through our current financial crisis without looking to schools to save money.  Unfortunately, the discussions tend to turn ugly when belts need to be tightened.  Aspersions of entitled, underqualified, overpaid teachers and administrators are leveled vociferously and unjustly.  People quickly mention a number of programs that should be cut, footnoting their conclusion by touting their own favorite program, which, in their eyes, must not be cut.  Every person and every program has a list of supporters and detractors.  Which programs are unnecessary and which indispensible? Music? Art? Foreign language? Physical education?  Social studies?  Ask ten people and get ten different answers.

All of this leads me to a list of questions:

  • How much is a good education worth?
  • What is the cost of a bad one?
  • Does a school’s effectiveness have an impact on its community — even for families without children in it?
  • Is it important for high-performing schools to strive for improvement?
  • Should education prepare students for the present or for the future?  What’s the difference?

Our community will be wrestling with all of these questions and more in the near future and beyond.  There is no one right or wrong answer, I admit; though I have some strong opinions, among them that we paid more for our homes for the right to send our children to the absolute best public schools available.  What happens to that property value, what happens to our own children’s education, and what shapes their futures will largely be determined in the next few months.  Here’s hoping we make the best decisions about our schools for the benefit of our children and, ultimately, our community.

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Great Expectations

do hard thingsThe ZMS faculty’s Think Tank assembles monthly to discuss literature and/or themes directly or tangentially related to the world of pedagogy.  Membership to this group does not require a Mensa card as the name might imply, rather commitment to and passion for our business of educating and interacting with children serve as the tickets for entry.  Our most recent gathering centered around the work of two brothers, Alex and Brett Harris, who wrote Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations.  The authors penned the text when they were 18 years old after they recognized through their personal experiences that our society expects less of our teenagers than they are capable of producing, and that these expectations artificially limit what teens produce.  They encourage their peers to actively resist cultural tethers that limit their potential.  (It is important to note that this work is steeped in Christian references, though the work is relevant regardless of one’s creed.)

There are many points within the book that could be argued and some suggested causality that is likely more circumstance, but the major premise that American teens hold untapped potential seems irrefutable.  While reading this work, I couldn’t help thinking about the documentary “Two Million Minutes,” a film that shadows three teens for a year — one from China, one from India, and one from the USA (Carmel, Indiana).  Both the book and the documentary suggest that the two million minutes between the end of 8th grade and high school graduation amount to many students to be, as it’s described in Do Hard Things, a “vacation from responsibility.”  While this description is more harsh perhaps than warranted, conjuring images of today’s youth vis-a’-vis that of the “Greatest Generation” makes it simple to identify a distinct cultural shift.  Of course economic times and world circumstances required a different level of responsibility upon the youth of the ’30’s and ’40’s that none of us would wish on our children, and that is precisely the point of the Harris brothers: the capabilities of teens have not changed, necessity has, and as a result, so has the set of expectations and teens’ productivity.

So what does all of this mean to us, the parents of teens and pre-teens?  The more I ruminate on the topic, the more I believe that the current generation applies itself as much as any other, but oftentimes the target of its focus is curious.  The best example, it seems, is athletics.  Travel leagues and year-round schedules prove that children (and their families) are not unwilling to commit and dedicate themselves to an activity.  The difference to me is that the words “activity” and “cause” are not interchangeable, and today’s youngsters seem to have more of the former and less of the latter.  Our children are scheduled to the hilt (and, yes, homework is part of that programming!), but children seemingly have less time for unstructured pursuit of their passions.  By passions, of course, I mean greater life pursuits with a purpose, not “Call of Duty 3” or Twilight.

Interestingly, though teens are often the target of criticism, they are not the culprits of this dilemma.  We adults have a responsibility to enable our children to find their life’s passion and purpose.  Oddly, though this statement sounds as if adults should seize control, in many ways the opposite is true.  Our role is to ask the right questions, to lead without directing, to assist our youngsters in becoming the people we know that they can be reaching heights they do not perceive to be reachable.  Some of our families, some of our children, have circumvented the cultural malaise, discovered their passion, and pursued it with purpose.  I wish they could share with me their formula, though certainly none exists.  The topic is without a doubt worth parental reflection.  What are the societal expectations of teens?  Are they good enough for your teen or pre-teen?

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Life in the Bubble

bubblesWhen I arrived in Zionsville from Anderson in 1996, I knew I had arrived in a new and very different place.  My first day on the job at ZCHS provided what is still today a vivid recollection: students leaving backpacks unattended on the floor outside in the hallway during the lunch period.  Personal experience had taught me that an unattended backpack resulted in someone rifling through it, taking what was valuable, and then, in mean-spirited fashion, dumping the rest of the items across the floor as if to draw the attention of any other potential “shoppers” to the make-shift garage sale.  I thought I had arrived at a modern day Mayberry when I realized that these students left their items out because they were certain their belongings would remain undisturbed.  Though shocked and a bit worried by the display of good faith in the fellow man, I felt as if my family had chosen its new residence well.

Thirteen years later such behavior, despite my continued albeit weak protestations, appears more routine and less shocking within the school building.  Meaningful occurrences of theft over the last decade could likely be tallied on two hands, and most of these instances have taken place when outside groups have come into contact with our environment – visiting athletic teams, and the like.  The fact is that our school environment is a comfy, homey one, and our students feel that they and their belongings are safe and secure.

Over the past two weeks, I am sorry to report, two bicycles have been stolen from our bike rack.  The answer to the obvious question is, “No, they were not locked,” but that has been the standard operating procedure around here for a while, so it seems possible that a shift has occurred.  In all likelihood an unaffiliated passer-by helped him- or herself to the bikes, because it appears that they were taken after hours. 

Regardless whether the thief attends this school or not, it may be wise to discuss with your child the need to keep items secure.  While I certainly do not want to breed a culture of distrust in our school environment, it occurs to me that it may be easier to keep our current culture of trust if theft does not become a more common occurrence, rather than it slowly creeping into our consciousness.

I enjoy our life in the bubble.  At ZMS our students tend to be more interested in their right to leave their lockers unlocked (jamming pencils into the lock to leave them open is a popular and discouraged hobby in our halls) than their right to privacy, and we are no doubt better for it.  Perhaps a family discussion of securing possessions will help our students realize just how lucky we are to live in such a wonderful community, and at the same time increase the awareness that not everyone shares the same values as we do.  And, as always, thank you for your continued partnership!

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Parent Orientation Meeting for 1:1 Program

netbookopeningIt is my hope that the 5 minute screencaptures linked below prove helpful in describing to you our 1:1 program.  This digital version of our parent meeting is intended to inform parents who are unable to attend the “live” meetings on September 16 and 23 (Eagle Hall, 6 pm).  The links below are sequential, and last approximately 5 minutes each.  In order to view all of the meeting’s content, it will be necessary to see all six links.  Thank you for “tuning in.”

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six