Measuring Success

Last week I attended the EARCOS Leadership Conference in Bangkok.  I joined sessions about developing strong leadership teams, teacher supervision and evaluation, child protection, school accreditation, and more.  Unfortunately, some of these sessions were less helpful than others, leaving a lot to be desired.  I spoke with a few of those presenters after their sessions and asked them how they thought their session went.  Interestingly enough, no one I spoke to really felt confident that their session went well, yet they couldn’t be sure one way or another.  It got me thinking…

While all of the sessions I attended were very different from one another they all had one thing in common – none of them asked for feedback in order to see how successful they had been.  To be fair, the presenters may have had another method for determining the level of success of their sessions.  However, I have to wonder whether the presenters and facilitators I worked with ever measured, or even determined, any indicators of success.

I’m sharing this story today, not because I want to bash the presenters at EARCOS but rather because I want to provoke your thinking about your classes.  How do you know whether a lesson, unit, or assessment was successful?  

Each lesson has an objective, a goal for what the students should be able to do or learn by the end of the lesson.  So, at the end of the lesson how do you know if the objective has been met?  Are you collecting data that provides evidence of student learning?  Perhaps, like many of the presenters I spoke to after their sessions, you’re not always 100% sure how successful a lesson has been.

I want to nudge you to think about how you’re able to know whether a lesson has been successful.  We will be discussing this further with Faculty Heads this week and I’m going to ask them to continue the conversations with department teams.  Please take some time to think about how you determine a lesson’s success as well as brainstorming other ways that you could possibly use to measure success in the classroom.

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Lessons From the Fairway

I’ve been playing golf for a long time, but since I starting teaching I’ve had the school year and the golf season.  By only playing golf in the summers it has remained separate in my brain from teaching, very compartmentalized.  However, for the first time I’ve actually started to blend the two together and recently I realized that golf and teaching are actually very similar challenges.  

If you’ve never played golf, don’t worry, I’ll do my best to keep the technical golf-speak out of the conversation.  Teacher-speak, as a fair warning, I’ll have a hard time avoiding! 

Golf separates itself from most other sports by being, at the same time, one of the most frustrating and enjoyable games in the world.  One day you’ll absolutely love every second of the game and the next you’ll swear that you’ll never play again.  In fact, those sentiments frequently occur multiple times within the same round of golf.  Whether it’s day-by-day or lesson-by-lesson, teaching is also full of ups and downs.  Just as in golf, with teaching we know that even on the worst days, during the worst lessons, there will always be something that reminds you of why you love what you’re doing with your students.  In golf there’s always that really good shot, even on your worst day, that excites you to the point that you want to go through it all again.  Even on your longest day at school, what is it that excites you and gives you the energy to do it all again?

While anyone can play, golf isn’t easy and it takes a lot of time and energy to be good.  Think back to your first year(s) of teaching and imagine how much you’ve improved since those early days.  It takes time, making mistakes (lots of them), practice, coaching, and dedication to become a good teacher.  The same is true of golf.  Hours and hours of practice to develop just the right plan for your swing, costly mistakes that ruin an otherwise great round, and your patience being tested by the same annoying bad shot over and over again.  Does any of that sound familiar to you as a teacher?  Unit and lesson plans, taking risks and trying new teaching strategies (some work, others don’t), and students who do the same things no matter how many times you ask them not to.  Every golfer has areas of growth, even the #1 ranked player in the world isn’t perfect on the course…I encouraged you to reflect on your practice last week, have you identified your target area(s) of growth?

In golf it’s important to know yourself and where your strengths lie.  Occasionally it is important, or even necessary, to try new things.  You might decide to try a new putting grip, new golf clubs, or even a new mental approach.  Sometimes these things work and end up becoming an important part of your overall game.  However, it’s important to know your major strengths and remain focused on maximizing those parts of your game; trying too many new things will lead to a loss of focus and wasted energy.  The same is true in teaching.  Over the years we’ve all developed skills and strategies that work for us in the planning process and in the classroom.  In order to keep growing we need to be open to trying new ideas but it’s important to know our strongest skills and ensure that they are being maximized.  Just as it’s important to reflect and identify areas for growth, the same is true for your strengths – identify your strengths and utilize them to maximum benefit.  

Whether you’re on the golf course or in the classroom you’re on an amazing roller coaster ride.  You’ll scream and shout, you’ll laugh and cry, but at the end of it all you’ll pull into the station and (most likely, hopefully) want to ride again.  By pinpointing what, exactly, it is that excites you about teaching, you’ll tap into a source of energy that will get you through the low points and give you the drive and determination to push forward.  Identifying areas for growth will provide you with the opportunity to continue growing as a professional and allow you to feel the impact that even the smallest changes can have on your students’ learning.  Through it all, riding the tide of your strengths as a teacher will carry you, and your students, to great success despite the inevitable ups and downs you’ll experience.  

We may not beat Jack Nicklaus or Annika Sorenstam on the golf course and people probably won’t confuse any of us with Anne Sullivan or Ron Clark in the classroom but there’s no reason that we can’t move a little bit closer each day.  To be the best we have to aspire to grow and improve, we have to practice and reflect, and we have to enjoy the ride.  Take a few moments today to think about the three points above and see if you can’t answer these questions:

What excites me about teaching?

What is one, high-leverage, area of growth for my teaching?

What are my strengths as a teacher and how do I use them to drive my teaching?

 

Watching Your Documentary

A little over a year ago Netflix released a documentary telling the stories of people in Scooba, a small town in the southern state of Mississippi, USA.  The main characters are the players, coaches, and staff of the Football (American style) team at East Mississippi Community College.  The players at this community college are young men who usually, for one reason or another, were rejected or kicked-off of powerhouse university teams.  This small town, with it’s community college, has gained relevance as the home of what has come to be known as ‘Last Chance University’.  A place for young men who’ve made mistakes off the field, to possibly earn another shot at stardom by cleaning their slate and starting fresh.  Sports have always played a huge role in my life and I draw many lessons from my experiences as a player, coach, referee, and fan.  So as I binge-watched my way through Season One, I was learning a lot and praying for a Season Two.

Season Two of Last Chance U was recently released and started off with audio of a preacher in front of a congregation, sharing a story about Coach Buddy Stephens of East Mississippi Community College (aka Last Chance U).  Viewers of Season One know him as a fiery, foul-mouthed football coach whose team ended their season in the most unfortunate of ways (you’ll have to watch for details, no spoilers here!)  Now, as Season Two begins, Coach Buddy has watched Season One of the documentary and, as the preacher tells us, “As he watched himself on that screen, he didn’t like what he saw.  Can you imagine if a documentary was made about your life?  And they followed you, the good, and the bad, and the ugly?”

The preacher was heading in a more existential direction with his sermon than I’m going to go in here but his main point really hit home with me.  What would we see if we could watch ourselves, filmed and edited from an outsider’s perspective, and would we like what we saw?  Now, before we get too deep into this thought exercise, I’d like to narrow our focus a little more.  Instead of trying to imagine your whole life, start with your professional life.  What would a documentary based on your life as an educator reveal to both you and the world?  

I believe that most of us are like Coach Buddy, in that we would look at a documentary about our life and see areas for growth.  However, unlike the now (in)famous Junior College football coach, we are probably not going to have the luxury/burden of Netflix deciding to make a documentary about our professional lives.  This means that, in order to get that outside, ‘documentarian’, perspective on our educational story we’ll need assistance from someone other than a Netflix camera crew.  

As educators we’re lucky, we’re surrounded by others who are just as keen to learn and grow as we are.  We’ve got colleagues who know and understand our craft, able to provide feedback, conversation, and strategies for growth.  Similarly, we’ve got students who see, hear, and evaluate much of what we do professionally.  The resources to produce our own documentary script are there and, while we’re not being filmed 24-7, we are certainly being watched.  In this way we are more lucky that Coach Buddy, we don’t need a documentary to provide us feedback.  

Where the challenge lies for us as educators, in an insulated community, is facing the reality of needing to grow and finding the proper motivation to do so.  Coach Buddy didn’t have much of a choice, the whole world was watching the same documentary as him.  He realized that without changes, the same mistakes were going to keep repeating themselves for the whole world to see.  In education, just as in sports, mistakes can cost you dearly and if we want to improve we need to acknowledge those areas where growth is needed.  While parallels can certainly be drawn between sports and education, we’re not playing a game when we enter the classroom each day, the results mean much more to our students than a simple W or L.  

I’d like to ask that you’re actively reflecting on your practice as educators.  If you’re a returning teacher you’ve worked with our Performance Appraisal Rubric (PAR) in the past and have a starting point for setting some goals for this year.  If you’re new to the school, think back to your past practice and begin to identify areas where you know you can grow, areas that will positively impact our students’ learning.  We will begin to officially document goals and move to reflection together in the coming weeks.  While there won’t be any Netflix camera crews, there will be ups and downs, wins and losses, and without a doubt – a lot of learning and growth.

 

Camp Kuri Kucho

I am once again blogging my reflection of my Discover Ecuador week.  I want to model for our students as well as share my experiences and learnings.  Two amazing weeks gave me much more to think about than I could write but here are some of my thoughts as well as photo “evidence”.  

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For the second week in a row I was away with students for Discover Ecuador trips, it was another great experience.  Working with the 7th grade class at Camp Kuri Kucho (thanks to Gabo Cadenas for the above photo) was an absolute joy!  The community, San Pablo Urku, welcomed us with open arms and we felt totally at home as we worked to support the projects of this small community.  My experience with the 7th graders was just as amazing as my trip to the Amazon the week before but different in many ways, most obvious of which was the weather!

Accomplishments

The biggest outcome of this week for me was the impressive and inspiring work achieved by the 7th grade group.  In the week prior to our visit the 9th grade class had been in this community starting and working on some projects.  The 7th grade continued their work in many areas and started a few of their own projects.

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The first five rows of a 15 row water tank.  Each plastic bottle is filled with dirt to create a “brick”.  Foundation laid by 9th grade last week.

Over the course of the week we were able to see the fruits of our labor as the projects progressed.  Our students felt tremendously proud of the work they accomplished.

 

The main focus of our work was centered around the local school.  In this community they have a school of about 90 students from elementary school up through 10th grade.  The students in this school are from the surrounding villages and could be seen walking great distances to get to and from school each day.  The AC students were able to connect with these students as they joined the 45 minute school break each morning.  Playing soccer, basketball and joining conversations with the local students, our kids got to know the community members better.  The connections they established gave even more meaning to the work we were completing on their behalf.

One of the highlights was the opportunity for our students to take part in a lesson with some local students.  The topic was about the use of pesticides and the harmful impact they can have on the agriculture and the environment.

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Classroom “theory” time before doing the “practical” in the garden.

After the lesson our students worked side by side in the garden with the local students to begin planting either potatoes or fava beans (habas).  Since this school is a rural school they’ve worked to establish a sizable organic garden for their students to learn the process and importance of farming.  Much of our service work involved this garden.  It was a unique experience and opportunity for our students to work in a meaningful and real context with the local students.

 

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Ernesto teaching us how to milk a cow and other fun facts about cows and their milk production.

Aside from the wonderful service work completed by our kids we had a lot of other learning opportunities throughout the week.  Afternoon activities allowed the kids to learn to make tortillas from scratch, learn to milk a cow, and upcycle a plastic bottle into a “maceta” (a pot for plants).

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Maceta creation station led by our fantastic project leader, Karen.

Each student participated in all of these activities and had the chance to come home with their maceta and a plant.  Other opportunities included learning to conserve water (a very valuable resource in this community) by taking a “bucket shower”,

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Buckets getting filled for our “showers”.  Hot water boils on the other side of that wall, each person gets about half a bucket of hot water and fills the rest with colder water.

working as a team to wash their own dishes and silverware, and sharing a bunk space with over 15 other classmates.  All in all, our 7th grade group had the opportunity for a lot of amazing takeaways from the week.

 

What I Learned at Kuri Kucho

While this was a tremendous learning experience for our students there were also some great takeaways for me too.  We worked hard during the day and enjoyed the afternoon and evening team building experiences.  The students learned countless lessons this week.  I too learned a few lessons of my own through this experience and also a few good reminders!

Last week I talked about how much I learned about my tolerance for rain.  This week, I learned just how valuable rain (and water in general) can be for a community.  San Pablo Urku lies in a very dry area and is currently in the midst of the dry season.  We were constantly reminded of this fact since they only have running water a couple days of the week.  Students (and teachers) had to deal with toilets that didn’t flush with the push of a button, an absence of traditional showers (they waste a lot of water), and dust and dirt all over everything.  While we were there we experienced a day of rain and could see first hand just how valuable that water was to the community.  Water collection tanks filled, plants and crops received much needed hydration, and the whole community smiled as we sheltered from the rain (they knew how important that water was!)  Water, the essence of life, is constantly on the minds of this community…something we take for granted everyday was put into a very different perspective at Camp Kuri Kucho.

Another good reminder of things that we take for granted was the importance of certain types of food.  I can walk out my front door and within two minutes be at a pizza place, a sushi joint, a noodles restaurant, or cevicheria.  In San Pablo Urku the staples are potatoes and fava beans.  Every meal includes one of these very filling foods that also provide an amount of protein to their diets.  Meat is rare and when included it is a treat.  Cuy (guinea pig) are raised by almost all members of the community, as well as chickens.  Cows provide milk,

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There were lots of sheep around San Pablo Urku.

sheep provide wool, but both exist as a rare delicacy as far as their meat is concerned.  The last night hamburgers and french fries on the menu, it struck me as to how foreign this menu must be for the local community…something so normal to me is completely foreign two hours down the road.

Wonderful Experience

Waking up each morning to the sight of Cayambe looming over head was an absolute joy.  I didn’t let a chance to appreciate this beautiful sight ever pass me by.

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A hike with an amazing view as a reward, beautiful!

We had clear mornings each day and I even woke up one night at about 4:30 to see a full moon hovering just over the volcano…awesome!  Beyond the amazing scenery was the chance to take in a completely new experience with our students.  Visiting this community and working alongside the maestros to improve their garden and water tank was inspiring.  Community service is important for the people we help but perhaps even more important for the inspiration we can take away from the experience.  I feel very thankful to have enjoyed this trip with the 7th grade students.

 

Camp Amazonia

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Last week I was lucky enough to join the 10th grade class on their trip to Camp Amazonia near the communities of Rio Blanco and San Alberto in the Amazon Jungle.  It was my tenth school trip in as many years and each has been unique in its own way.  This was my first time taking high school students on a trip and I can now say I’ve traveled for a week with every grade from 3-10 except 9th grade.  This trip included lots of hard work to help the local Kichwa communities, team building, cultural activities, and a trip to the Jumandi Caves.  At the end of the week everyone was exhausted but there was also an overwhelming sense of achievement!  

Awesomeness

Every time I take one of these trips there are wonderful examples of how amazing young adults can be when they are pushed out of their comfort zones.  This past week certainly did that, kids and adults alike were challenged in situations that went well beyond our everyday routines.  Right from the start we got right down to business with some hard work in the morning and then again after lunch.  We started the day in the rain and ended in fierce heat and sun.  Not only were we pushing ourselves hard to help these communities but the weather was pushing us as well.  However, by the end of the night everyone made it to dinner with a smile on their face and a sense of satisfaction in their hearts.  

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Working hard to create a botanical fence line.

The sense of community that develops over the course of a week like this is impressive to say the least.  Students who are struggling for one reason or another are picked up by their classmates without any teacher intervention.  Classmates who hadn’t really engaged with each other in the past can be seen walking, working, eating, and hanging out together.  New friendships are formed and old bonds are strengthened.  As important as community can be in international schools, trips like this are crucial!  

I’m not sure there are words to express how impressed I was with the efforts of the 10th grade group over the course of the week.  Through torrential rains, back breaking work, spiders and other critters, these kids stepped up in a huge way.  The work they did this

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Heading out to plant trees, helping to reforest a recently devastated area.

past week will benefit those communities for years to come.  Our students may never return to this area but their mark has been made, their efforts were not in vain.

What I Learned About Myself

While this was a tremendous learning experience for our students there were also some great takeaways for me too.  This trip was, by far, the most physically challenging of the school trips I’ve enjoyed.  I’m not shy about some hard work and I enjoyed every second of getting my hands dirty this week.  However, I learned a few lessons of my own through this experience.  

First off, I used to think that I would do pretty much anything to be out of the rain.  I HATE rain, or at least I used to think I did.  I mean, I’ve always loved a good thunderstorm but that’s conditional on me not being caught in the down pour.  In the Amazon, when it rains, it pours.  When it pours in the jungle there’s just no way to avoid it, no way to stay dry, get dry, or even remember what dry feels like!  However, it’s warm outside which makes being wet much more tolerable than I had ever realized.  In fact, by the time we got to Thursday and got stuck in yet another torrential downpour I was so used to the rain that I soaked it up and enjoyed every last drop.  I learned that I could manage being wet, even soaked with boots full of water!  

Another great reminder for me this week had to do with being prepared.  While I was prepared with all of the right materials and supplies, some of the kids weren’t.  Usually I pack extra and plan for this situation but for some reason I didn’t this week.  I gave up my gloves and came home with some blisters as trophies.  Not all of our kids had the proper footwear but thankfully Camps International had extra boots.  Finally, when it comes to being prepared in the jungle…bug spray is your best friend, I got lazy at the end of the week and my legs got eaten up!  Pack heavy and take extra gear, especially if you’re staying in cabins and not carrying it around all week.

Thankful

At the end of the week I feel extremely thankful that I was able to join this experience with our 10th graders.  We made a difference in that community, we learned about the Amazon, and we grew closer as a group.  Working alongside this inspirational group of young adults made me a better person and a better educator.  The best news is that I get one more week, this time with 7th grade…I can’t wait!!

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Hiking in the jungle, we stopped next to a 300 year old tree to learn how to create our own headwear.

Using What You’ve Learned

This morning at #L4LAASSA we were lucky enough to welcome Ewan McIntosh.  He helped us disrupt our thinking in a major way.  Have a look at the 10 takeaways from Ewan’s presentation:

  1. Provoke
  2. Curate wonder
  3. Ask the right questions
  4. Create a War Room (project nest)
  5. Capture the thinking
  6. Design discussion
  7. Drive towards problem-finding
  8. Take risks
  9. Build, build, build
  10. Know why

One of MY major takeaways/reminders from this session is that this this isn’t a one day workshop or keynote.  This HAS to be an ongoing thought process.  I think this is quite obvious to everyone involved, however dedicating the time to continue the journey after returning home is always the challenge.  In fact, it’s the same for any long term change project…the hard part is keeping the momentum going.

While sitting in front of Ewan McIntosh it’s very easy to get excited and brainstorm ideas.  But come Monday morning the “real world” comes crashing back down and there are proverbial fires that need to be tended.  So how do you take a great idea and keep it alive?

Whether it’s something taken away from a conference or even the idea to start a diet, how do you follow through successfully?  To me the concept is easy, it’s the implementation that’s tough.

Set Aside Specific Time:  

Setting aside specific time in your schedule is very easy, holding yourself to that time is the hard part.  What happens when “something comes up”?  Do you scrap the time you had allotted for your continued professional growth?  Usually, and unfortunately, the answer is ‘yes’.  This time must be sacrosanct, don’t waiver in that belief.

Find an Accountability Partner:  

This can take multiple forms.  First off, and maybe easiest, is to find someone who has the same goal/focus as you and work together.  Meet together once a week, set appointments and hold each other to them.  If you’re working with a partner there is an extra motivation to hold yourself to this time, you don’t want to let that person down!  A second option, if you’d rather work alone or on a different project, is to partner up with someone who has a goal, any goal.  Even though the goal isn’t the same you can check-in on progress and support each other throughout the process.  Most of us work better as a team, we’re collaborative beings by nature…go with it!

Reflect Publicly:  

Of course this requires more time…maybe.  See, reflection is one of the most important parts of the equation.  Without this you’re not going to move very far down the path toward success.  So, when you reflect (which you should be doing anyway), do it in a way that you can share publicly.  Perhaps you make audio notes while you’re in the taxi, maybe it’s a group chat on Voxer, or maybe you just take a picture of your War Room, white board, or notebook and share it to a blog.  Sharing publicly creates two things: another level of accountability and an opportunity to receive feedback.  Put yourself out there and see what comes back!

If you can put these three pieces in place when you’re working on a long term goal there is no doubt that you will see success.  A little bit of time up front will pay big dividends on the backside.  Don’t be afraid to invest a little time in yourself!!

 

What Are You (Not) Saying to Your Students?

By now we are all well aware of the essential role that feedback plays in education.  We create tremendous opportunities for our students to both give and receive feedback which allows them to improve their learning and drive them toward success.  The feedback we give our students is extremely valuable in their development as middle school students and budding academics.  However, this is formal academic feedback I’m talking about.  What about the informal feedback your students are receiving from you throughout the day?

Our students are receiving feedback from you whether you intend it or not.  Maybe you laughed at their joke as they walked into class…feedback (my teacher finds me funny).  Perhaps you compliment their new shoes or haircut…feedback (my teacher notices me AND thinks I have style, yay!)  Consider the other side of the coin.  Feedback (my teacher thinks I’m stupid)…the teacher only calls on a couple kids for the ‘hard’ questions.  Feedback (my teacher doesn’t notice me)…the teacher focuses on the “loud” kids.

What feedback are you sending without even thinking about it?

As I’ve been moving around the school this last week I’ve tried to think about the potential feedback that our students are receiving from the (un)intentional messages we are sending.  Some are AMAZING, some leave room for growth.

Some of the positive feedback kids are receiving that may or may not be intentional includes:

  • My teacher really likes this class and group of kids.
  • My teacher has high expectations for all students.
  • My teacher knows me and cares about who I am outside of school.
  • My teacher values SSR and enjoys reading!
  • My teacher enjoys working at SCIS.
  • My teacher is happy 🙂

All of these things are impressions that can be implied from the way that we engage with their students.  I’d like you to think about how a teacher may be sending the above messages.

Take a few minutes to think about the feedback your students are receiving from you.  What are the positive messages?  Is it possible that you are unintentionally sending any negative feedback?

I think you’re all amazing educators and wonderful people.  We all work very hard and as I’ve mentioned before, we’re all at least 90% awesome 🙂  I believe strongly in looking in the mirror and working to grow each and every day.  Thank you for all that you do for our students and our community.  We have an amazing middle school and we get better each day!!