Saturday, September 29, 2012

Something Matters

As a first-year classroom teacher in Harlem, I struggled in many, many ways.  My school was equipped with few resources to teach a very underserved population.  As a beginning teacher, support was wanting - the one and only time I was observed in my first year was in April for my formal evaluation....  Curricular materials? Nope. Working photocopier? Safe school? Chalk? No, no, no.  There was next to nothing.  Pretty much the only thing that seemed to work well was the metal detector - somehow I don't think airport-like security is quite the version of "threshold" Doug Lemov envisioned when he was writing Teach Like a Champion.

Through happenstance, I stumbled upon something that would forever dramatically change my perception of what is possible.  My enthusiasm for work skyrocketed. As my excitement soared, so did the engagement of my students.  Discipline challenges dwindled, academic performance increased, and family support rose.  Moreover, all of us involved were having a lot more fun.

As I looked around at other schools, I discovered this same phenomenon. I began to see classrooms of excellence, and sometimes schools of excellence, that allowed students to become anchored and rooted in something.  My wife taught at KIPP Bronx, and it had something.  My own high school had something.

So what is that something and how do we bottle it up and get it to schools everywhere?  The something that matters, I believe, is an incredible passion that inspires others to share in that love, whatever it is.  My urban studies professor at Penn, George Thomas, so loved Philadelphia architecture one couldn't help but fall in love too - Frank Furness, I now know, is truly amazing because of George's love for him and his work.

At my school in Harlem the chess program we started became that something. At KIPP Bronx, it was and remains a tremendous orchestra. For my high school, it was successful mock trial and Model UN programs.

At Blackstone Valley Prep Elementary School 1 (ES1), one of our somethings is the music program.  Starting in kindergarten, scholars begin to learn rhythms, music, and note values.  Explicit "music math" is introduced in K - essentially we teach five-year-olds to solve algebra problems (we'll save my take on "developmentally appropriate" and the need to teach algebra for different blogs).  Last year, K-2 scholars performed concerts at local nursing homes.

The power of that ES1 something was on display a little over a week ago when our cafeteria was packed (literally standing room only) on a Thursday night as families came in to school to sign out their scholar's violin.   The enthusiasm and excitement in the room was palpable.  Parents and teachers - yes I saw some of you - were brought to tears of joy.  As one of a handful of elementary schools in Rhode Island that can now boast a strings program, we definitely have a something.  Indeed, while some schools are (rightly) celebrating 1:1 technology with ipads and the like, at ES1 we are a little more old-school: our 3rd graders are now 1:1 with the violin thanks to support from Bristol County Savings and our amazingly passionate teachers.

So, my question for those of you still reading, what is your something, and what is keeping you from making something happen in your classroom, school, community center, neighborhood, or church?

P.S. And speaking of music, check out our scholars as they join other music lovers during Pronkfest on October 8th on the streets of Fox Point in Providence!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Continuous Improvement - or else

There are entire industries built around teaching others the best practices for organizational improvement.  One may have heard the term kaizen, a Japanese word that has become an Americanized business buzzword for continuous improvement.  Indeed, how can one argue with the phrase continuous improvement?  We are all human, and the last I checked I have yet to meet someone who is flawless.  (I had hoped that maybe our third child, Mollie, might be the first perfect person.  As every other parent before us has learned, however, once kids learn to talk all bets are off...even little Mollie isn't perfect.)

As a public charter school, continuous improvement - or else, is probably a more apt way to describe our situation.  By design, Rhode Island public charter schools are granted organizational flexibility, and, in exchange, we are held to a higher bar.  Indeed, this week the RI Board of Regents voted to deny a five-year renewal to a Providence charter high school because of academic performance on NECAP.  Instead, the school has the next two rounds of NECAPs to show significant improvement or be closed.  This year Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy will be under the microscope as part of our own charter renewal process...and we will do everything we can to demonstrate that we are working hard to get better.

Unquestionably, continuous improvement at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy is a way of life.  Elementary classrooms boast literacy growth trackers, grades 2-7 have regular data meetings to look at the Achievement Network interim assessment data, classrooms are regularly open to peers offering feedback, and we are launching our first network-wide Instructional Rounds next month.  Even the elementary "Recorder Karate" and "Violin Karate" programs are built around self-monitoring of continuous improvement.

This coming week, BVP will host a team of educators from SchoolWorks who will provide a third-party, objective view of our work to help us identify our next key areas of improvement.  The visiting team has experienced teachers and leaders who have conducted quality reviews for dozens, if not hundreds of schools around the country.  We have asked that their focus be a hybrid of their School Quality Review Protocol and the RI Charter Renewal Site Visit Protocol.

I, for one, am really looking forward to the SchoolWorks feedback and push.  One of my biggest challenges is that when I walk our schools, which I have done several times this week, I find lots and lots to celebrate.  I am crazy proud of the BVP teachers, leaders, and staff for the amazing work that is happening at BVP.  While I believe that they will what I see, which is inspiring and rigorous instruction, I am also hoping that they offer us many critiques - how else will we get better?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

"Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien."
'The perfect is the enemy of the good.' 
- Voltaire

Those who know me know that I am not a philosopher.  A brain-stormer? Definitely.  Doer? Yup.  Deep thinker? Hardly.  The quote above doesn't come from my reading of Voltaire, rather from hearing it in the pub somewhere talking shop with family or friends.  In fact, I had to google the quote to source it.

I share this quote, though, because it speaks to the heart of what may be our biggest challenge at Blackstone Valley Prep: sustainability.  We hired the members of this team because we believe in people who are driven to dramatically change the course of young peoples' lives.  We believe that our teachers are urgent about closing achievement gaps and raising the bar for all. We believe that the BVP team believes in every one of our young people - 100%.  Indeed, this is hard work, and we celebrate hard work!  One phrase I've heard used to motivate scholars to push themselves is "the reward for hard work is more hard work."

What happens when you combine this urgency and push for excellence with our strategy of more time?  The immediate result: amazing outcomes for our scholars.  I have had the opportunity to watch tremendous lessons this year.  Classrooms look incredibly inviting.  Student work is celebrated publicly.  The trajectory of our scholars is very, very high.  And there is data to prove our model, both our own data and the results of others who espouse the same high expectations model around the country.

But what about longer term?
Couple pushing for excellence with a scheduled longer day, the actual work-day for teachers too often turns into eleven...or twelve...or more hours.  Add a commute to Newport, and, ... wow. Weekends?  If not serving scholars on one of the Opportunity Days, Saturday and Sunday are often spent planning, grading, or both.  To be sure, when at family events, the conversation (too) often turns to school the intended respite is undermined.  So what do we do?

Part of the answer:
Organizationally, based on meetings with a teacher committee last year, we are trying to tackle  sustainability head-on.  We made many attempts to improve communication of planned events outside of school time.  We have reduced the required number of Opportunity Days, and we have added additional stipends to hire team members to do the planning for these days.  Moreover, we have made some moves to build additional staff into our model to support teacher absences without lowering the quality of instruction for our scholars.

Another part of the answer:
"Martyrs" cannot be celebrated.  Working through a cold - definitely.  Coming in when you think you have mono - not okay on many, many levels.  Checking in during a maternity leave? Sounds great (send us pictures!).  Trying to grade papers or write plans from the hospital - no way!

Yet another part of the answer:
We need our super-motivated, highly urgent, perfectionist team to look into themselves and say, this work is good enough, and then go home, or to the movies, or the gym, or the pub.  The cost of getting to perfection is, indeed, too often too high.  The break might even help process the solution to the work...surely there's brain research out there on this topic.

But short of that imaginary thirty hour day, know that "the perfect is the enemy of the good."  We must be able to continue to do extraordinary things for our scholars and still live full, meaningful, satisfied lives.  As long as we communicate with one another what we can and cannot reasonably accomplish in a reasonable amount of time, we will achieve excellence together.

And with that, I am signing-off to back-to-back soccer games for my two eldest...perhaps during the work-break my brain will accidentally stumble upon the right way to launch our much needed capital campaign....

Sunday, September 9, 2012

got college?

One of the first things that visitors notice at BVP are the strong cultural elements that make our schools stand out.  From silent hallways to lots of quirky engagement techniques (e.g. sending support, two vertical hands, snaps), the sense that "this is not your old school" is a very real and visceral reaction to a trip to BVP.

One of the most palpable of these cultural elements is our explicit and relentless pursuit of "putting 100% of scholars on a path to college."  Indeed, classrooms are named for colleges, and even the reference to the grade levels has been surreptitiously replaced by the expected four-year college graduation year of the scholars.  To be sure, this year's kindergarten class is referred to as the "college class of 2029."  College language is infused everywhere - we make "college lines," we raise "college hands," and teachers often can be heard saying, "when I was working on a problem like this in college...."

To celebrate this college focus, last year BVP printed t-shirts with the phrase "got college?" on the front, and we regularly use the hashtag #gotcollege? on twitter.  College is central to who we are and how we operate.

Visitors sometimes challenge me with questions like, "do you really believe that every child should attend a four-year college?" A few have been far more blunt by stating "you know that lots of kids are better off working with their hands" or even more direct, "college just isn't for everyone."  Indeed, one close family friend (a highly educated, highly successful professional) said to me, "at a macro level, our economy requires an entry-level labor force, so everyone shouldn't go to college."

Compound these challenges with some rough data from a Harvard study - 57% four-year college completion rate (in six years) and a bunch of other eye-popping stats - and you really start to wonder if the naysayers are right.  On top of that, when you look at how hard we work to get many of our "scholars we love the most" to approach grade level, it is fair to think hard about what it will take for some to make it to and through college.

So what is the answer?  Is college a just a euphemism for success? Are we setting our scholars up for imminent failure in post-secondary study by pushing college for everyone? 

My response is unequivocal - we must do everything, and I mean everything, that we can do to ensure that we achieve our mission to put every scholar on a path to college.  Even if some opt to pursue trades, armed forces, or starting a family, our job is to help every single BVP scholar be ready to tackle higher education.  Indeed, if we are successful, our scholars will have that choice to pursue college.

We are well on our way.  Indeed, allow me to share a published comment from one BVP parent who is adamant that we continue to push her scholar for success:
For those of you who don’t know my daughter was diagnosed this February with borderline intellectual function, and we were told that no matter what we do she would never exceed the comprehension of an 8 year old… we were crushed. People told us to pull her from BVP (as it would be ‘too hard’) and put her in a school with children with extreme special needs… long story short, she has been doing GREAT under the structure and direction of the teachers and special education staff at Blackstone Valley (I, personally, feel like she is a different child when she has long school breaks and in the summer). Yesterday her step father and I sat down to help her with her homework and realized she had done it at her afterschool program… I was worried they helped “too much” and asked her to explain the concepts to me… I almost cried when she explained perfectly what lines of symmetry were… We are both so proud of her progress and very happy she has such a great support system at BVP!  Thanks guys!
We can and will push for 100%.  Cien por ciento.  And when the work seems impossible, turn to one another, reach out to your team, call me.  We are all in this together. We #gotcollege!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Week One in the Books!

BVP Team we have one week in the books, and what a week it was!  With our 770 scholars (or thereabouts) and nearly 100 staff members, we are off to the races.  From K scholars learning how to sit in a chair (literally) to 7th graders developing teamwork skills at the Wheeler Ropes Course, with a ton of academics, benchmark assessments, service projects, anti-bullying, routines, music, art, physical education, soccer practice, professional development, and lots and lots of family meet-and-greets in between, this was arguably our best first week ever.

Some of our first week highlights have been captured beautifully by Carina and Jen on our first Constant Contact announcement, revised website and our Official facebook page.  I would be remiss not to remind everyone also to follow @BVPrep on Twitter where Carina, Jen, and I try to capture the essence of the day.  Also note that any tweet that mentions @bvprep will be (almost) automatically retweeted!  Thanks to many of you for taking a moment to use Twitter to share the positive things that are happening in your classrooms and schools.

The most important communication that we do is with our families.  At the end of the day, family engagement is all about communication.  Phone calls, emails, and, most importantly, face-to-face meetings drive positive relationships and trust which ultimately drive school excellence.  There is a ton of research out there on this, and I think that we are all seeing this anecdotally as well.  

But how do we manage the unmanageable?  The midnight text from a parent? The facebook complaint about school lunch?  The multiple calls each day to check on the little one (who almost always is totally fine, but maybe the parent is having adjustment challenges).  Perhaps it is all about educating the parents?  I found this article on "helicopter parents" pretty insightful and a really positively framed way of asking families to trust their how do we get everyone to read this one?

Professional Reading
Speaking of articles and professional reading, as a way of trying to help all of us efficiently stay up-to-date on the world of education, Lori has subscribed all of us to the Marshall Memo (shoot me or Lori a note if you need our username and password).  If you can't wait for these weekly summaries, you might want to subscribe to the ASCD Smartbrief which is an excellent daily summary of education news from around the country.

As for Professional Reading...check out this attack on TLaC
As you know, we use Doug Lemov's text Teach Like a Champion as a foundation for our work.  As several within our organization have posited, however, TLaC is not a panacea, but a starting point.  It is with that in mind that I wanted to share with you this article criticizing TLaC.  While I disagree with the author's interpretation of TLaC, it is important to think deeply about our practice and constantly check ourselves.  TLaC provides us at BVP with a common language and foundation...and it is up to us to build on that foundation with other tools, practices, and ideas.

Last, but certainly not least
September 11th is Primary Day here in Rhode Island.  While we do have a Professional Development Day, make sure that you find time to vote.  Several important primaries throughout the state feature candidates strongly for great public schools and choice competing against others who do not support charter schools.  Get informed and vote!

Cheers to each and every teacher and staff member at BVP!  With week one in the books, we are now ready for our most amazing year yet!