Friday, December 26, 2014

I'm Santa

"Yeah. What's up, buddy?"
"Santa's real, right?"

I'm a fan of Christmas. I always have been. I don't remember (spoiler alert!) when exactly I learned that Santa wasn't real. I'm sure it was middle elementary school (3rd or 4th grade), around the time when the older kids found humor in our confusion over condominiums and condoms... One of my friends unfortunately argued his family lived in... well.. easy mistake at that age. 

While I don't remember the when exactly, I know it wasn't until my middle to late teen years that I found peace with the meaning of Santa and the reality that Santa is something that lives in us all. 

It's bothered me that as parents we create this "lie" to our kids and insist that Santa exists as a real man dressed in red that delivers presents with flying reindeer and sleigh, even when our kids question the feasibility. We answer the questions with the easy "he's magic" answer, and hope that our kids just buy it until their classmates on the playground are teasing them for still believing. Not a comfortable conversation follows that scenario, and the kiddo might question everything you say from then on! (Over dramatic? Maybe.. OR maybe not! 😜)

So, this year I found myself facing more of these questions from my oldest. He's a super bright 3rd grader. His questions got the attention of his 6 year old sister, so now things were serious! I decided to approach their questions with two of my own.

The first question I posed was to ask them what they thought or believed. Instead of answering with "he's magic" and walking away or replying with "yup, he doesn't exist", I decided to use a teaching skill and have them reflect on what they believed. For a topic like Santa, this reflection gets them thinking with their hearts; the place, I believe, the true Santa can be found. 

The question that followed was to ask, "what if I'm (daddy is) Santa?" This really got their eyes popping! "ARE you Santa?" they would ask. To which I replied, "what does your heart tell you?" Again, I wanted them to think about it and consider it. By at least placing the idea in their heads that I could be Santa, my hope is that they will be more comfortable transitioning to this reality. That and it's a great boost for me: "Daddy you can't be Santa! You're not old and fat!" ...sweet!! 😀

My goal in answering their questions with my own questions is to help them reflect on who Santa is to them. If my plan works, they will see that Santa is something that lives inside us all, and while there might not be a magical, jolly, fat man that lives in the North Pole, it doesn't mean that we all can't still make Christmas a magical day by embracing our inner Santas for the ones that we love. 

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas, and I would love to hear some of your stories on how you've handled the "Is Santa real" question. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

My promises to my 5 kids

I started writing this while holding my newly born daughter in the hospital. The 5th kiddo created by the love my wife and I share. When I was a kid, I always knew that I would be a dad and a husband. In fact, these details were all that I was sure of. The boyhood dream of being a dad isn't what I thought it would be. It's not that it's harder; it's just there are certain parts that I expected to have been smoother. For example, as a kid I knew that I would be going to college and because of that I would never have to worry about money. (Cute kid thinking, huh!?)

So while I think back about those little dreams I had about what my life as a dad was going to be like, I see how my thoughts about fatherhood have changed. These changes are a list of promises that I have made to all 5 of my kids. I keep adding to theses promises, but for now here is my list. 

1) I promise to always love your mom. This is number 1 because without the love that your mom and I share, all of you don't exist. This love is where our family began, and I promise to not let it ever go away.

2) I promise to love each of you forever. This doesn't mean the same, because none of you are the same. You will each need me differently as you grow up, and I promise to love you so much that I will learn what that need is and fill it to the best of my ability. 

3) I promise to not be perfect. I'm realistic. I will make plenty of mistakes as your dad; just as you will make mistakes. I promise that I will show you what it means to own your mistakes and to learn from them to become a better version of yourself.

4) I promise to get you all the essentials for everyday living and an occasional item off the "want" list. It's important to know that you can't necessarily have everything just because you want it. I will help you learn how to work hard to collect more if not all of those "wants."

5) I promise that I'll tell you when you can't leave the house looking like that. And yes I'll mean it, and of course I'll accept your apology after you tell me that you hate me.

6) To my daughters, I promise that I'll think nobody is good enough for you,... But when he proves me wrong, I'll apologize. 

7) I promise to allow each of you to become yourselves. I'll give you the freedom to express who you are as long as you are respecting yourself along the way. Try things. Be safe, and know that while I may be disappointed, I will always and forever love you. 

8) I promise to show you how to greive, so that when the day comes when I have to say goodbye, you all will be able to take care of each other knowing that my love for you all didn't leave with me. 

I know that this list is missing something, or maybe it isn't. If you can think of a good addition or something that needs tweaking please leave a comment.

Have a great day, and be a great dad, because you can!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dealing with my own kids' stress - Teacher-Dad grade C-

Anticipation and anxiety are killers for kids, and parents. Kids can't hold onto calm when they know something is going to be happening, or is coming to them either positively or negatively. This month has been full of anticipation and anxiety for my kids from planning our flight to Auntie's wedding, to Thanksgiving, and finally to the arrival of a new baby.. and Grandma & Grandpa next month, my kids have been exhausted from the amount of energy they are releasing in anticipating and stressing about all of these things.

The hard part for this teacher-dad is that it doesn't end there for my kiddos. If that were all that they could be "worrying" about, then I think my wife and I would be managing better. But, when you tack on the rest of the day-to-day living "anticipations" or "anxieties" like school work, gymnastics class, late start Wednesdays, snow days, eye doctor appointments, an uncomfortable prego mama, and losing a 1st tooth, it can be too overwhelming for the kiddos. And, I hate to admit this, but when all of that is going on, it's all too easy for me to get wrapped up in the whirlwind of crazy and forget to look at my kids as well.. kids.

I seem to be able to look at my students as kids with anxieties and outside pressures better than I do my own kids. This is a fact that I'm grappling with, and I think I've realized what it boils down to. In the classroom, I have a set of fall backs or tricks I can use when I can see a student struggling in my class because of outside influences. My options are my own in the classroom, and I work to make things as fair as I can without handing out grades that are unearned, or foregoing assignments. It is easy for me to say, "just turn it in tomorrow" or "why don't we just wait on taking this test for now" or "let's take more time to complete this in class tomorrow" because I know that those are realistic and helpful options in those situations. I also have the foresight to know this, because I'm not wrapped up in whatever chaos may be swirling in that student's life. I can see that whatever they are going through is more important than my math class, and accommodate my class to help them deal with that drama.

However, when it's my own kids, in my own house, there is often no time to step back and see the bigger picture. I'm in the heat of the battle.. sometimes quite literally, and I can't step back and remember ALL of the crazy that is swirling through the everyday happenings of my own kids. So, while I see 3 of 4 kids screaming in JC Penny (sorry about that guys!), I needed to be able to step back and know that they were feeling the anxiety of a new shopping routine, and a snow day as well as the anticipation of getting a "treat" for good behavior. All of it overwhelmed 3 of my 4, and I just couldn't see it. Instead, I was "that" dad. You know, the one with the "super frustrated, yell-whispering, opposite of calm look that speaks of a guy that never goes out with his kids in public" type dad.

Looking back, I see now that the three screamers needed more "prep" on what the trip was all about. It wasn't fair for us all to get into the van and drive through the snow to a store we barely go to and not tell them "the plan." They didn't know what to expect and that fact alone gives kids stress and anxiety. And because I was wrapped up in my own thoughts on getting us there safely, and in having a moment to talk with my wife, I didn't see the ways I could have helped. For example,  I spend a moment at the start of each class period explaining the topic of the day, AND I make sure to stick to a routine that my students get use to in order to build their comfort. Yet, in this moment I didn't do that for my own kids, and we paid for it... My ears are still ringing, btw.

In the end, reflection on a past situation always leads to the easy solution of what I should have done. But the truth is, I need to focus on delivering "the plan" much better with my own kids even in those moments of crazy. I need to help us by laying things out just like I do in my classroom so that I can ease the stress for my own children. So for now, I'm giving myself a C- in this category as a Teacher-Dad. Plenty of room to improve, but not the worst!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Adventurous Learning

Ok. It's time to get everyone up to speed on all the things going on for this Teacher-Dad! 

1) I interviewed for a new teaching position in late May. The interview was over Skype to a panel of 6 teachers and admin. Oh, and it included a lesson on the Law of Sines. 

2) I was offered the job in early June. Apparently, I rock Skype interviews! :)

3) The offer was just too good to pass up, so I accepted.

4) Announced our move with the exciting news that we are expecting our 5th kiddo (December due date)! 

5) At the end of July, my wife, father-in-law, & I drove our 4 kids and 2 cats in 2 vehicles 2400 miles from Fairbanks, Ak to Washington State.

6) We've been here just over 2 months and we're 5 weeks into the school year.

7) And mixed throughout all that my wife has kept her business going, and I've been working with a teacher-buddy on a new Podcast... So yeah

Wow... I have to admit that I've read over that a couple of times, and I'm overwhelmed by it all! How did this happen?! Why make a change? How did we know it would be ok?

The statement I hear the most when I tell our story is, "Wow, you guys must be adventurous!" This is followed by, "I could never do that," as the person then slowly walks away shaking his head and glancing back at us with a look mixed with confusion and envy. 

I have to admit the word "adventurous" has never been a word that anyone from my childhood could ever use to describe me. I was scared of my own shadow! I was frequently wrapped up in my own self doubt. It's hard to take chances and be adventurous when you don't believe in your ability to accomplish things. 

I see this fear or lack of self confidence a lot in my math classroom. I hear that phrase, "I could never do that" or a variation of it all the time. But it makes sense. Here we are as teachers asking kids to be adventurous and step out of comfort zones to learn new things each day. We are asking them to trust us and take chances to make them smarter and stronger. Some naturally walk into a room with self-confidence, but many don't. So how do we help students open up and be adventurous?

I've thought a lot about this over the last several months, as I've looked around at the changes my wife and I decided to make for our family. I've watched what my kiddos have gone through adjusting to a new life and new surroundings. It hasn't been easy. Stress levels have been pushed. But we knew they would. 

The truth is, I could never have done any of this without my wife. Throughout this entire process I've been able to collaborate with the person I trust more in life than anyone. We've problem solved, critically thought, and planned all of this together. We trust the intelligence of one another, and use that trust to take well thought out and agreed on chances.

It's that part right there that matters the most and translates right into the classroom and to parenting. How can we as teachers and parents create that collaborative trust between our kiddos and between our kiddos & ourselves in order to help them have the comfort of taking learning chances? The answer is in the relationships. It is in how welcoming we are as teachers. How open are you with your kiddos? Do they trust you won't let then down or let them fall? Can they see you taking your own chances and at times missing the mark? How do you respond in those moments? 

The best teachers let the kids get comfortable. They manage the room with mutual respect and not as a dictator. Each kid has a voice and is encouraged & supported to us it. We create a blanket of comfort that the kids wrap themselves in and use to take learning chances. They ask questions, get correct answers, and start believing that they too can take chances. So when they do hit a hurdle, they don't use it to define themselves in the class, but instead use it to learn and grow. They can use that fall as a time to collaborate with trusted peers to reflect for learning and not as a tool for added self-doubt. 

Our victories as teachers and as parents are directly linked to those trusting relationships and the comfort our kiddos have in taking adventurous learning chances. I'm proud that I've modeled that in my life, and can now focus on continuing to work toward making my home as well as my classroom a trusted place for adventurous learning.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Common Core and my Fraternity

I'm a proud, life-long alumni member of my fraternity, Sigma Chi. I didn't go to college with the intention of joining a fraternity; I watched Animal House too many times to think I would fit in. But when I went through the process, I came across a group of guys that I got along with, and seemed generally interested in things I also enjoyed. Choosing to become a pledge, and going through initiation proved to be one of the best decisions of my life in that it opened me up to learning about myself, but also about working with a diverse and changing group of people.

Sigma Chi is based on a set of principles: Friendship, Justice, and Learning. And, based on those basic principles, a diverse group of men can put aside differences of opinion to work together to accomplish greatness. The basic standard that we live by and find members by is called The Jordan Standard. It highlights the following qualities that we are reminded to be:

*men of good character 
*students of fair ability
*set with ambitious purposes
*having congenial dispositions
*possessed of good morals
*having a high sense of honor
*having a deep sense of personal responsibility 

Pretty straight forward, right? How we accomplish these traits are not laid out or broken down into great detail. It doesn't bullet out that "men of good character" must open doors for old ladies. Or that "having a congenial disposition" will be demonstrated each March during the chapter's open mic night. Or that by the time we are juniors "having a high sense of honor" will be shown by 6 specific sub categories. We are given broad ideas that we can interpret for ourselves and for our chapter. 

I witnessed this open interpretation of the standards when I attended the Sigma Chi Leadership Training Workshop when I was an undergrad. Members from most of the chapter across the US and Canada came together to exchange ideas and talk Sigma Chi. It was eye opening for me to see how different we all were. How our chapter location and university culture could lead to such different views on things. But, we all shared the same value structure and we all worked with the same pride in the organization. The same drive to be great. It was remarkable to see such difference in approach and perspective driven by our common belief and standards. 

When I came back to my chapter I looked around and realized how different my own chapter brothers and I were as well. I was reminded of this recently, when a fraternity brother of mine posted a message on facebook. He was calling out a person based on the ideals that we share as members of this fraternity in a way that I didn't agree with. And in most of his posts I disagree with him and some of his worldly views. Yet, these differences, while upsetting at times, bring a perspective to me that I never considered. It opens me up to understanding a vastly different look at the world. His intentions and goals are the same as mine, but his interpretation on how to use our common ideals are so different. Neither way is better. They are just different, because we have been left to take these broader standards and interpret them as we see fit. 

It is here that the DOE can take some notes. There is nothing wrong with setting a Common Core set of educational standards for our kids. We should all be striving for educational excellence in our schools. Laying out what that means in a broad way can be so helpful, especially in a school like mine that is 60% military families that are coming and going frequently. But to lay down such specifics on what each of these standards mean almost all the way down to the how it should be done starts to take away the respect of differences. I have yet to teach the same kid twice. In fact, the students I have today are not the same version of the kid that started my class in August. The life I grew up in back home in Illinois, is not at all comparable to the community that my own kids are growing up in here in Fairbanks. Yet, the common core in all of its specifics takes none of that into consideration. 

As an educator I strive to understand, appreciate, and nourish the differences in all of my students. I recognize that my kiddos will all learn differently, and I broaden my teaching to reach as many as I can. But when I look at the specifics of each of the standards that I need to reach for next year, I see where this Common Core missed the mark. Where the potential to show respect to the schools and districts is missed, because we have been over looked in our ability to teach to the strengths of our students. 

I've spoken out supporting aspects of the Common Core (click here). But in general, I think the DOE overreached with this. An opportunity was missed because the passion for what we teachers do each day wasn't felt by those creating these standards. The love for what I do daily wasn't present in the room when the Common Core was sent out to us all. It would have been similar to a university president and board of regents choosing the founding ideals and standards for Sigma Chi. They wouldn't have had a genuine stake in the creation of the fraternity, so the passion for creating what we would represent and accomplish wouldn't fit. It would be disjointed and nearly 160 years later the fraternity wouldn't exist. Much like I'm sure the Common Core will not exist as we see it today even 10 years from now. So, I'll continue to do what I do everyday, which is to teach my students the best way I can. And to strive to reach whatever standards are laid in front of me understanding that I'll interpret those standards for me and my students. If that means some don't do as well on the "TEST" as they should, then so be it. Because as long as my students leave my classroom driven to be something, and then following that drive to accomplish further greatness later... I did my job, and those standards didn't have any part of that. I did. The teacher. You can call it the Runkle in me.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The bad business of education

I was recently removed from consideration for a teaching position out of state. This shouldn't be too big a surprise being that all new personnel options get moved from the list until the final candidate is chosen. The part that I had a hard time with was the reason I was eliminated from consideration.

I had made the short list of candidates (about 5) for interview and consideration at a school that I had been in contact with for a few years. Let's say that I have a few connections. I was so excited to get the email letting me know that it was interview time! But when I went to schedule the interview, I learned that I was no longer on the list, because I had too much experience. Huh?

Was I qualified? Most definitely, I made the short list. But without even an interview, I was overlooked simply because of my experience. My personality match, work ethic, references, all of it overlooked, because I've been teaching too long and they couldn't match the years.

As a teacher, I totally get this. Budgets are tight everywhere in the ED world. It was fortunate to even find a school to have a math opening.. 3 math openings. But as a man with a business degree and 4 children of my own, this decision just doesn't make any sense.

It's sad that we look at schools as a place to trim budgets forcing schools to operate at limited personnel levels with new teachers that are frequently thrown to the wolves. At no point, was the question about what was best for the students. You know... the reason we have schools. It was never about the candidate that would have the best impact on the school and the department. It didn't become a question of who could come in and bring a spark of energy and creativity that could make the building that much better for the students. Or maybe it did, but at the pay range that suited them best.

I know this type of stuff happens in the world of business. But typically not to a 36 year old; some one in the prime of productivity and experience. Maybe to someone in his 50s... 60s that has reached the top, and was cut due to greed, mergers, or both.

But for schools, where the "business" is educating kids, the best fit should always come first. It shouldn't always come down to money. Would it have sucked to have heard, "Well Ken, we just don't think you're the best fit for our school right now." Sure it would have! But, at least the decision would have been about the school and the kids. At least I would have had a chance to interview and meet the people I would have been working with. Instead, I'm sitting back and contemplating the state of education.

I've realized that one of the main problems with education is that we continue to run it with a bad business plan. We greedily funnel the money to the top, and neglect the overall product. The best business minds in our country can be found at their offices mingling with employees, nurturing them to help create the best product and service for their clients. The decisions made are always about what is best for the customer, and not strictly about the bottom line. There is trust in the employees to do their jobs, and to maintain that trust there is mutual respect from the top all the way down. But that's just not the case in education. The news is hardly about what is best for students. We are constantly told we are not cutting it. Decisions are made at a larger level that fall to the shoulders of the workers. The best of us meet all challenges head on, and work to have a voice for change. The majority fester in frustration, anxiety, and fear. The majority that represents our work force in the media, and in political discussions. How do you think their classrooms are for students if there is the constant sound of disgust coming from outside voices?

At the rate things are going, I don't see a change happening any time soon. Quality education leadership is hard to come by, and those that are great find their own voices limited in the political arena. To their credit, they're out there, and they're trying. It's just hard to move forward when those in charge are fearful of you.

It also appears as though I'll be teaching in this district for quite a bit longer. At least, I know that what I'm doing in my classroom is student centered, and supported by my students, their parents, and my principal. It's not like our boss (the "super") is checking in on us anyways... I wonder how his paid Admin leave is going....? I'm sure a post about that would get me in trouble... darn.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Building up our kids to Dream for the Future

I came across this picture a few weeks ago while cleaning out some boxes in storage. This is me on my high school graduation day with my grandparents. When I think back about that day, I remember them being there, but I have no memory of them being proud or excited about the milestone. And really, I don't remember being proud either.

As a kid I always knew that graduating high school was expected. There really wasn't a choice. So, as I  made my way through high school, the basic expectation of graduation was never daunting, it was something I had to do, so I was going to make it happen. For me, graduating wasn't about accomplishing anything major, it was about moving on to the next phase. It was about moving away from the person I was in order to become the adult I was expected to be.

The problem with this is that I became less of a dreamer about what I wanted as I focused on the check points along the life path I was on. Everything was set out for me which narrowed my vision as to my options for life beyond high school. That meant that my focus was centered on the "now," and the fun in the present. I wasn't looking ahead to what could be, but was instead dreaming for the moments in the present (day dreaming).

As a teacher I see this a lot. Students that come in having had their ability to dream about their futures stymied by life at home. For me it was due to a parental path that was safely laid out in front of me with an end goal of financial wealth beyond college; all done with the best of intentions. For others, it is stymied by a more harsh world. A world where parents aren't around, and when they are, the kids are made to believe that they aren't good enough for a life different then what they have already. The absolute worst is when these are combined. When parents have a high standard beyond college that they discuss with their child only to further tell the kid it's a life he will never achieve. For me, the career paths were narrowed by options that weren't good enough for the desired end goal, but for these kiddos the career choices are limited by what they are made to believe THEY aren't good enough for.

The result? A student body that is focused on surviving the moment. Not able to see the impact of work they are doing in school, and how it can shape the future. We have a group of students interested in the world of games where shaping the future is possible due to the strengths of the character the student is playing. Because for that moment, he can accomplish anything with the press of a button, and the game is won. Simple. No one there to stop the dream from happening.

As a teacher, I strive to help my students dream. To provide lessons and support that give them the chance to grow into confident learners. To provide an adult in their lives that they know believes in them as a competent individual with limitless potential. I strive to help my students see all that they can become, and to encourage them to define what they believe happiness should be, and to work for it.

Finding the picture above was so eye opening for me. I had no idea the pride my grandparents had that day. But to see those smiles now. To know that there was so much they felt, but didn't say to me, helps me realize all that I truly want to be for my own kids, and for my students. They all need to know the pride I have for them, and the belief I have in them. It is what I expect from the teachers my own kids have each year, and it's what I expect my fellow teachers to have about the kids in our building. Teaching is about building the confidence and the skills of the young dreamers, so that we can make the world a better place. Our job isn't to force content, but to use content to help guide the kiddos to learning about themselves.

I encourage you to let your kids and students dream. To help them believe that what they dream can be a reality, and that you have confidence in them to get there. And that along the way, you will be there to help guide and support in all ways that you can. Even if that means they want to be the driver of the Pizza Planet Truck, or a CareBear, or the builder of Lego weapons that keep the world safe. Let them learn to dream about the future, so that along the path of learning they can shape those dreams into the reality they truly want.

Side note: I think I turned out pretty good, so in no way am I complaining about the path my parents had set for me. In fact, without that path, the husband, father, and teacher I am today wouldn't have been possible. So, thanks Mom and Dad. Love you.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A teacher-dad's thoughts on vouchers

My baby cousin messaged me last week to get my opinion on vouchers. Her college Econ class was discussing its impact on education, and she wanted my teacher thoughts! (Not so much a baby anymore, huh?). I will admit that I've always had a hard time connecting to economics, but from what I know, this is a great topic for a class discussion! Kudos to her Econ professor!

I will admit that my thoughts on the matter may be different than that of most teachers. As a teacher, I work hard to be the best, and expect the best of those that work with me in my school. I believe that I work in the best middle school in our area, and it would be foolish for any parent not to send their kiddo to learn with us. That said, if a parent thinks otherwise, why shouldn't they send their child to the school that is a better fit? Isn't learning about making kids comfortable, and teaching to their interests and strengths? If my classroom, or school isn't making a connection that will help a kiddo learn and grow, I think it is fair that the student leaves to go to the learning environment that is a better fit. I want to have that option for my own kids, and as a person passionate about opportunity for all kids, this just makes sense.

That said, we have to be realistic with what this means. I live in a small community. We are isolated in the center of Alaska, and even though we are the 2nd largest "city" in the state, our educational options are more limited. So, let's say we do vote-in a voucher system and everyone wants to use vouchers to go to our local Catholic school. The trouble there is Monroe is limited in space and resources. So, as demand goes up, and supply/space is limited the value increases. So, now this private school might have to raise tuition further beyond what the voucher covers to balance the demand, thus putting the school back in the same place it was (a school for the more financially secure). This is great for them, because maybe they can expand to take in a larger population of kiddos. But what if then the quality goes down? How will they manage the influx of students and maintain the high quality educational product? These questions apply to all of the private schools in our town.

Or, let's say my school's reputation becomes more widely known, and everyone wants to come to my school. Again, we have limited space, and we can't duplicate the success of individual teachers forcing others to be like us, because it's our unique personalities that make us the strong educators that we are. It's the leadership of our school that gives us the umbrella of comfort to teach our students the way we do. But, when our population increases compared to the other middle schools, won't they have to at least shift what they are doing? Won't their "product" have to improve? Isn't this creating a competitive edge that will start to drive improvement? Or at least shouldn't it?

In my opinion, the problem with education is that there isn't a worry about competition. Students in your neighborhood will go to the local school regardless of the quality. Unless, we throw down piles of cash to go to a private school, but that isn't much of an option for most of the population. Parents can also choose to stress about a charter lottery system to avoid going to their zoned school. In the end, many parents feel stuck. If we throw in a system that drives schools to work in the best possible way for the kids, then we will start seeing a shift in teacher quality, and more importantly education leadership. Principals will become more focused on mentoring teachers to improve the quality of the staff. Districts will have to start listening to what the parents are saying to understand what the community sees as the qualities that make a successful learning environment. If money is being thrown at private schools, then it would force the public education system to figure out why. Is it the lack of required state testing? Is the teacher quality that much better? How is it is better? If the vouchers are being applied to on-line education, how can our district better meet that demand? How can we better our value? Or, do we focus our efforts to be the best education option in another way?

All of these questions drive a concept of increased competition that, in my opinion, would lead to school reform and improvement. Schools would have to focus on what is best for the students from the kis' eyes and more importantly their parents' eyes. It's time to take away the idea that legislators and districts know what's best for all kids, and give that power back to those that truly know best, the parents.

I understand the issue of keeping state and/or federal money away from religious organizations. But this isn't necessarily about religion. This is about educating our youth. And if a community has an excellent school that is private and religion based, how can we say the dollars set aside to educate the kids in that district can't go to that school? We are giving recognition to a school for working at a high level, it just so happens that the school has a religious foundation. If the local public school doesn't like it, then it is up to them to buck up, and provide a better educational quality. A quality centered on students, and not on new standards and the test that supports them.

In the end, I spent over an hour catching up with my 20 year old cousin. Her opinions on education and life were so refreshing. I left our conversation knowing that if she represents even half of her generation, we're going to better off. We have to support opportunity for all kids to grow in learning environments that are best for them and their unique differences, instead of this one size fits all system. We both agreed that a little competition would be good for public schools, so I'm open for giving vouchers the opportunity to create that competitive spirit. And hopefully, help drive us to a better public education system.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Time to Trust the Process

There has been a lot of drama in our Fairbanks school district lately. The most recent bit that has scored media attention (and a social media buzz) is centered on the principal search of one elementary school (story click here, and principal union response click here). Basically, the parents feel that the process is too closed, and the superintendent didn't openly ask for staff and parent input. The district process for an admin search involves a small committee that includes a few teachers and staff from that school, a PTA volunteer or 2, a native association member, and a member of the central district office big wigs (e.g. assistant superintendent). There may be a few other individuals, but that's what I remember from my time as a member on an admin selection committee when my middle school had a long time principal retire.

When she left several years back, I knew that I wanted my voice heard, and thankfully, my co-workers agreed that I would represent their interests well through the process. We all knew the routine going in. This committee would be doing the research, setting up the direction of the process, and basically all of the leg work. However, the superintendent would make the final decision. That was the scary part. We had heard the stories of past superintendents hiring candidates other than the one the selection committee had suggested. We knew that was a possibility, so we took our roles on the committee seriously. This committee represented the interests of every staff member, every student, and every community member, so it was an honor to be given the chance to be that voice. I wasn't going to let anyone down.

Thankfully, we were able to narrow our pool of candidates to 2 very good options. And in the end, our number 1 was hired by the superintendent. We clearly listed the strengths that set our number 1 choice above the number 2, and made sure that no one would have been able to steer in the direction opposite of our suggestion. Our school gave faith to the process, selected individuals that we trusted, and it payed off. To top it off, we didn't have a PTA or a PTO at the time. Parent involvement at the middle school level falls drastically from elementary school. So, I don't remember having a consistent parent voice. But the teachers and staff at our school made it clear what was in the best interest of our students and their parents. Because we know. We're there every day.

I write all of this because the current drama comes from a strong group of parents that feel they are not being heard. They're faith in the system in not present, and they want more control. To me, the issue is a lack of trust in the decision making abilities of the superintendent. That fear that he might swing away from the committee's choice is overtaking them, and they are speaking out. The problem is the superintendent is the boss. He will choose the candidate he wants. But, honestly, we put him in that position. Our Fairbanks community voted in the school board members that selected him to be our "boss," the "decision maker." And if we aren't happy about that, then it's time to change up the school board. I know there are members that have been there for quite awhile and frequently go unopposed in the process. I also know that we have a new head of the school board that is mother of 3 in the district, so maybe that voice is growing. But truly, if parents are that un-happy it's time to make changes at that level.

So, while we are laying off teachers this week, we have this distraction which I'm sure the superintendent appreciates. The focus should be on all of the teachers that have received pink slip notices this week. It is instead, on the hiring process of one prinicpal. Which in the end, the parents already had their voices heard when the school board members were voted in and the superintendent was hired. So, it's time to trust the system that these parents have already shown support of in voting in these school board members, and to also trust those committee members that have been selected to be the voice of the school community. Regardless, the head of that school is changing. It'll be a new style of leadership, and new could be great. So let's keep it positive, people!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The CORE isn't the root of the homework problem

My wife is an amazing photographer. She just is. When she started her business, MachC Photography, 7 years ago, she spent a lot of her time researching and building a PLN (Professional Learning Network) to help inspire her to have the business she has today. And through all of the networking she created a community of people that are more than a network, they are almost a family. A family of people that share amazing images of their own lives with each other. Great images that she often shares with me.

A couple days ago, my wife called me over to check out an image in her feed. It was an image taken by one of her photographer family that was tough to see. In it was a little girl, kindergarten aged, standing in her pajamas behind a kitchen table. She was crying, sobbing really, holding a pencil over a piece of paper. The tag under the image read, "I hate Common Core." The comments underneath mostly talked about the amount of homework early elementary students were getting with the blame falling directly on the new Common Core learning standards that many of the states are adopting.

As a dad, I completely connected to the image, because it related to the experience my wife and I had when our oldest went to kindergarten at a district school. A 5 year old shouldn't be sobbing over homework. A 5 year old should be building an enjoyment of learning. A 5 year old should be given the freedom to explore and learn in a stress-free way.

Now, the problem here is not the Common Core. Not at all. Nothing written in those standards requires teachers to hand out homework starting at age 5. Yes, these standards are rigorous. Yes, these standards are intended to create a population of 18 year olds that are college ready at the level college professors would prefer to see. Yes, these standards are inquiry based which will require many teachers to change current teaching strategies. But no where do these standards force the delivery of content through mass amounts of homework.

The timing of these standards couldn't be worse for many districts that are now implementing teacher evaluations that are partly based on student test scores. This fact has brought stress on teachers and administrators, and in turn has created a panic that established this sense that students NEED to be doing more work at home. So, the truth is that kindergarten homework has more to do with teachers and administrators not having the confidence in themselves to create a learning environment that meets the rigor of these standards and their related state tests head on in the classroom.

What I appreciate most about common core, and have in turn already embraced in my classroom, is the inquiry based structure of learning. Basically, students are to be working to solve real-world based problems to establish a solution that they then can explain or communicate back in the form of a presentation or written response. They are doing math in a real world way. Not a worksheet way, but a way that allows them to create a path of their own with guidance from me, the teacher.

I have been explaining to the parents of the kids in my classroom, that I'm having to re-teach the kids how to learn. I'm taking away the 30 to 40 minute lecture/lesson with 10 to 15 question homework assignment, and replacing it with group work on a single dynamic real-world problem that is the lesson, and the assignment all wrapped into one. The result of this change is that my students are working at a higher level than any 7th grade year I've taught. They are applying an understanding of math concepts that is sticking better than before, and it's amazing to watch. And on top of it, I'm owning the responsibility of my students' learning, and I'm not placing it on the parents to help with homework every night.

The advice that I have for you, the parent, in this homework nightmare situation is to take control. If your elementary school student is spending hours doing homework every night, talk to the teacher and to the principal. Demand an explanation beyond, "to prepare your kid for middle school." See how homework factors into the classroom grade. For my oldest, it wasn't even entered in, it was simply busy work! Ultimately, as the parent you are the boss of your child's education. The school, the teachers, and the administrators work for you and your kid. If the homework is damaging the family life you want to have, then it's time to change. I give you permission to speak up! So, now you have to.
Good Luck!

And please leave a comment about your homework nightmare, or how the teacher or admin you spoke to handled your request. Thanks!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Tribute

My oldest turned 8 yesterday. It just so happened that The Lego Movie also opened yesterday, and since he is a Lego fanatic, it was a no brainer that we would do his party at the theater. The Regal Cinema in town did an excellent job, and we would highly recommend it for any of you with kids. Money was well spent! 

But, that's not the focus of this post. This post is about someone else that shares this day with my son. And while for my son it is a day we celebrate his birth, for this other special person it is a day we celebrate the life she had lived. On my son's first birthday, my Auntie Geri passed away. It has been an extremely hard truth that each year my wife and I stress about as his birthday approaches. While we live so far away from my Chicago area family, social media brings us all together in a way never before realized. Understandably, his birthday has become a day of memory for my Aunt by her children, as well as my cousins. So much so, that my wife and I have avoided things like Facebook on our son's birthday to focus on his special day. We post pictures the day before, and then stick to our own personal pages and groups, avoiding the main timeline. Just to stay positive, no disrespect to those in our family still remembering and honoring in their own respectful ways. 

I can't say that I was super close with my Auntie Geri. I CAN say that she loved me. She loved all of us. Everything about her glowed with happiness when she was around her children, her nieces, and nephews. I will never forget her smile as she would talk with us kids. She had a softness about her that made you feel comfortable and safe. So, when I think about the "why." The "why did she have to pass away on my son's 1st birthday?" I don't get angry, cause the "why" is so clear to me. My Aunt passed away on the first birthday of her first great-nephew. He was the first child born to any of us cousins, so in my mind she passed on a day she knew would be a celebration for a child. A child that while she only met a few times, I know she loved with all of her heart. The way she loved us all. 

So, while it is hard, I use my son's birthday to remember to celebrate him the way that I know she would want me to. They way that she celebrated all of us. Because, in my mind and heart, that is the reason she left us that day. She gave us a reason to celebrate the way she wanted us to. She also has given us a day to reflect on our own parenting to make sure we are loving our kids in a way she would be proud. 

Love you Auntie Geri. 

Friday, January 31, 2014

The buck? What Buck? We can't stop that buck.

I'd first like to say that I'm tired. I've been teaching for 9 years in Fairbanks, and I'm tired. I'm tired of watching our academic leaders sit back and watch things happen to our schools. They have watched state funding plateau for the last 5 years leaving our budgets short. They have allowed the state to dictate the value of our students, schools, teachers, and support staff. We listen to them blame a lack of funding for all of the cuts, and the increased class size. And we sit there and accept it, and I'm tired. I'm tired of feeling this way about my job. I'm tired of allowing our leaders letting us feel this way. Sure they say that they value us, and praise us for all the great work we do, but what actions are they taking to reinforce that?

I'm currently reading a book called "What Great Principals do Differently" by Todd Whitaker. A great book that I recommend you all read and start using as a measure by which you rate all principals and Ed leaders you encounter. One of the main concepts that has stood out for me as lacking in our current academic leaders is highlighted in the following paragraph:

         On-site visits and interviews with teachers and principals revealed some key
         differences between the very effective and less effective principals. One critical
         difference was that effective principals viewed themselves as responsible for all
         aspects of their school. Though these principals regularly involved staff, parents,
         and others in decision making, they believed they were responsible for making
         their school the best it could be. Regardless of whether situations arose within
         the school or as a result of outside factors such as budget cuts or school board
         decisions, the more effective principals saw themselves as the ultimate
         problem solvers.

What this says to me is that we are currently expecting our students to meet the high problem solving standards that are coming from a common core based system than we are of our academic leaders. Instead, we are getting a town hall meeting to show us that we don't have the numbers because of the state which means we have to cut jobs. We have to increase class sizes. We have to hide behind these things and not think outside the box. What does it matter to them? They will keep their jobs. They're salary negotiations will stay out of the public's eye. Where are the creative ideas that are keeping staffing levels? Where is the leadership of our district saying, "sure this is happening and it sucks, but this is how we are going to manage. Here is how we are going to rise above."

So, yeah, I'm tired of expecting more of my students than we do of our administrators. I'm tired of letting my value be dictated by a boss that allows outside influences to negatively perceive the outstanding job I do each day. Time to raise the standards we have for our leaders. Time to see some new ideas on how we ARE going to fund the missing budget amount, or how we ARE going to trim some other things that will keep our school performing for the students. Because after all, it is the kids and their parents that we work for. NOT the state, and it's lacking budget.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Our perceived worth = budget cuts

I know it's been a while since my last post. The holidays are a busy time in our house, and I tried to spend as much time away from social media as I could. It was nice. Until, I decided to check Twitter on New Years Eve and saw the local paper tweet out a headline and link to an article "School District Expects Deficit." Perfect... I had to click and read the latest in the state school funding drama. The state government isn't increasing the per student allocation for the 5th year in a row. The response from our Superintendent came off as whiny with a hint of doomsday-ish sadness. That's just in my opinion of course. But, that has been our district's stance for years now. Didn't get what we want? Threaten to raise class size and cut teachers! The world is ending!! The state hates education!!

Geez.. Enough is enough already. The truth is we need to pay teachers what they are worth. Right now, there is an overall feeling, Nationwide mind you, that the education system isn't working at a respectful level. Our media outlets don't help the matter with most news stories in education focused on negative headlines (earlier post about this, here). The best of us teachers are so busy working hard for our students that we don't spend extra time selling what we are doing to media outlets for coverage. Our admins are bogged down with paperwork from their bosses that they are trapped (sometimes by choice) in their offices, and the figure heads of our districts are just that. They are not out in the classrooms observing the front lines and noticing the outstanding efforts of the teachers and getting the proper PR out about our schools. 

Instead, we have another "don't fund our underperforming schools" headline. Great. Exactly how is that going to help? Who in their right mind will look at all of the negative perceptions of education and think, "wow that sounds like a great career!" Decreased funding, teacher cuts, schools with leaking roofs (yup mine does), and negative media coverage will not help change the course of education! In fact, that will only further hurt our students as the best of us teachers get fed up, and find success in other career fields. 

The thing that will fix all of our problems is a new system for training teachers. That starts at the University level and continues with our educational leaders. But that change is hard, and requires a University and a district to overhaul the teacher prep structure. There's no incentive for a University to do that, because people will pay tuition to get a teaching degree regardless. And if the teacher is just mediocre at best it doesn't hurt the University, they got their money. Most districts are more focused on finding a fix-all curriculum that scripts lessons for teachers, so that all teachers will be the same. Stupid.  Scripting mediocre teachers will still lead to mediocre educations for our kids, and doesn't solve any problems. We just spend more money on a curriculum and resources that inflate the pockets of someone else. 

In the end, we have to simply create better teachers that inspire students, and demonstrate to everyone that there is value in funding education. To give credit to our governor, he did say that he would consider a base raise if he knew the spending was going to something that would help change the system. Seems to me that this would be the best time to show a new teacher training program that funnels money to creating a better teaching crew. But, I'm sure that won't happen, and our educational leaders will silently support the notion that our teacher's aren't cutting it. That the money we need will go to technology and curriculum that will make our teachers better. It won't. And the quality of education will continue to be questioned, and teacher value will fall some more. 

So, what's a guy to do? hmm.. Reminds me of a Clash song... And if I go, the trouble, could still be there, but if I stay... maybe it'll double.... Crap.