Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Kite at the Top of the Sky: An Allegory for our Expectations

Last night I read a story called “The Kite” to my youngest daughter, from Arnold Lobel’s Days with Frog and Toad, the fourth book in his brilliant Frog and Toad series. These stories are some of our favorites. I’ve read them dozens of times to my three daughters.  Lobel, who died of AIDS in 1987, had an ingenious way of building great philosophical and psychological depth into these stories without ruining their fun.

In “The Kite” (which you can read HERE) Frog and Toad go to a meadow to fly a kite. Frog is full of optimism and encouragement, exclaiming that their kite will “fly all the way to the top of the sky.”

As they make their attempts to fly the kite, however, a chorus of skeptical (and somewhat cruel) robins demoralize Toad. “That kite will not fly,” they say, “You may as well give up.” And Toad returns to Frog mimicking them. “Frog,” he says, “this kite will not fly. I give up.”

This scene repeats itself several times. The effect is very funny but not merely funny. It’s also discomfiting. As Frog relentlessly encourages Toad to try different strategies for getting the kite in the air, one begins to realize that Toad is both internalizing the robins’ words and, devastatingly, associating himself with the kite: “This kite is a joke,” he says. “It will never get off the ground.”

But Frog refuses to allow Toad to give up and finally hits upon a successful strategy. In a fit of frantic movement and enthusiasm, Toad shouts “UP KITE UP!” and the kite soars. The narrator notes that the robins “could not fly as high as the kite.”

This isn’t a “little engine that could” story, I don’t think. In many of the Frog and Toad stories, Frog similarly encourages Toad to get up and go or to keep trying with less obvious results. They’re not necessarily about “how to accomplish great things” so much as how to thwart depression. Lobel seemed to know a thing or two about the relationship between depression and self-esteem.

But reading “The Kite” this time around, I started thinking about those robins; about how they might represent the way in which a community impacts one’s sense of self-worth and thus one’s behavior.

What are the consequences, I thought, when a community tells you, explicitly or implicitly, that you will “never get off the ground”?

In far too many of our school communities, the chorus of robins prevails. Their cynicism, their low expectations, are an organizing principle and there are not enough relentless Frogs to disrupt their authority.

On the other hand, I feel honored to have witnessed the transformation of children who arrived at an excellent school believing they were “junk” only to be surprised and lifted up by a chorus of Frogs among their peers and teachers. Those children (and in many cases their parents) were transformed not merely by the encouraging words but rather because those words reflected a core belief of the community -- backed up consistently and relentlessly by action.

Our belief in possibility must necessarily be married to a promise to follow through. Every child with a kite, every kite to the top of the sky.

Mike Magee is CEO of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dismantling the "Master's House": The Urgency of Rigor

My eyes slowly scan the black, metal shelves. A shadow of uncertainty floats through my mind. I am totally crazy, I think, running my fingers along the spines of the books, boldly marked Level U. Suddenly, I see it. My hand hesitates for a moment – but then, I grab the seven copies of The Tale of Desperaux, written by Kate Dicamillo, tuck them firmly under my arm, and tiptoe out of the room.

No, I haven’t just pulled off a major heist of children’s literature. But, I have done something scandalous and radical. I’ve selected a guided reading book that is about 8 levels higher than what my most struggling readers are “supposed” to read. To be completely transparent, these scholars test at Level M, and Desperaux, with its irreverent use of courtly French vocabulary, is squarely a U.

Why have I defied the sacred instructional injunctions of Fountas and Pinnell? Well, no offense ladies, but I really need to try something transformative. In fact, my decision goes back to my years at Connecticut College, when I absolutely devoured the writings of black, womanist scholar Audre Lorde.

"The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Lorde writes, inspiring us to seek and create radical solutions to such entrenched frameworks as racism or sexism – and, therefore, educational inequity. So, when we envision a blueprint to accelerate the growth of scholars who have suffered from the academic achievement gap, we must transgress against the ideologies and systems that have intentionally held them back. To “dismantle” the “house” of injustice in education, we must constantly problematize our instructional practices in the classroom, pushing the level of authentic rigor.

Too often, we shield our students. Bowing to a very real history of inter-generational poverty and racial discrimination, we assume that when a student comes to our school academically “behind” her classmates, she simply cannot waste a moment in confusion or uncertainty. Defaulting to direct instruction, we break essential knowledge and skills down into digestible forms, relying on the premise that learning can only occur when the teacher explicitly presents the term, the algorithm, the concept – and students passively absorb and imitate. Instinctively jumping to correct every misunderstanding, we dread the tentative, raised hand in class that says, “But, I don’t understand…”

But does the historian always have a text to consult? No, he is writing the textbook. Does the scientist have a conclusion in his mind? No, he discovers it. Does a lawyer know the outcome of the case? No, she must craft an argument to win. What do all of these scholars and professionals deal with every day? They must constantly grapple with uncertainty, the “answer” hanging just out of their reach. Therefore, if we continue to shield our students from moments of ambiguity, then we will fail to adequately prepare them to face the challenges of work and life, which require the ability to “figure it out” for yourself.

That’s why my students will read The Tale of Desperaux over the course of two months, three tricky chapters at a time. They’ll struggle to decode some words. They’ll struggle to understand the complicated trajectory of the plot. Yes, they will often feel uncertain. But, as they struggle, they will work through the "stuff" of achievement – of dramatic, house-dismantling, authentic rigor.

About two weeks into this project, my student’s insightful comments about Desperaux surprisingly affirmed my decision:

"Desperaux broke the rule of revealing yourself to humans never ever. Desperaux is going to be punished. Desperaux’s dad is planning to get all of the mice in the council for a plan to punish Desperaux for breaking that important rule."

Like Desperaux, we must bravely overcome our fear of failure or retribution, and break all of “the rules” to dismantle the systems of oppression that attempt to limit the inner potential of our students.

Ms. Nicole LaConte is a third grade teacher and Teach For America Corps Member at BVP Elementary School 1.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

On Homework

"The reward for work done well is the opportunity to do more work."

- Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine and founder of the Salk Institute
Upon receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, 1956

At Blackstone Valley Prep we PRIDE ourselves on hard work.  There's an unofficial motto that several of us at BVP use as motivation - it is a variation of Salk's: "The reward for hard work is more hard work."

Perhaps nowhere is hard work more transparent and palpable to families than in our  homework requirements.  Beginning in kindergarten, our scholars are expected to complete thirty minutes of reading (with a family member and very quickly independently) and complete about thirty minutes of problem sets.  By second grade, these requirements don’t decrease: instead we add recorder practice and, at ES1, the third graders add violin practice. Entering 5th graders are met with hundreds of computation problems to be completed nightly, largely in efforts to build automaticity.  And the work keeps getting harder.

We have tried to be very transparent about our approach to school and homework.  We know that a kindergartener attending school for 8+ hours daily and completing additional homework at night is often not the norm in Rhode Island. At enrollment meetings this year we showed this picture to families - a half year's worth of homework (from kindergarten).

Another way to get a sense of how much  homework a BVP scholar completes is to check out our homework for this February break (ES1 K-3; ES2 K-1; MS 5-7)

So why do we have so much homework?  Well, for starters, there is a global achievement gap that we are trying to close.  Because of our student population, we are also very concerned about the Latino achievement gap and the income achievement gap.  We believe that with great teachers, hard work, more work (e.g. homework), and high expectations, we can power through these gaps.

Part of this belief is rooted in research about what drives these achievement gaps - that we must overcome the 30,000,000 word gap, for starters.  BVP homework does this, we hope.  Putting more "miles on the page" by requiring nightly reading and pushing for academic activities at night, as a replacement for TV and video games, we believe that we help eliminate these gaps.  Moreover, we believe that we are building the strong habits that help our scholars rise to the challenges of higher education and in the careers of their choosing.

Another part of this belief is rooted in what could be dubbed "action research."  This is more along the lines of looking at what gap closing and high performing schools do.  When we do this we are drawn to places like Edward Brooke Charter School which consistently ranks among the highest performing MCAS schools in the state of Massachusetts.  They give lots of homework - more on the breaks and the weekends. We have visited Northstar Academy in Newark, NJ - a Blue Ribbon School, where their family handbook notes that "the amount of homework we give can be a shock."  Countless other gap-closing charters follow this approach to homework.  But so do some of the strongest schools in Rhode Island.  Classical High School is known for 2+ hours a night, as are Moses Brown, Wheeler, and LaSalle.  To compete with the best, sometimes it is best to study what they do (see New England Patriots and Spygate...wait, that's for a different blog says this Steelers fan...).

Indeed, there is research supporting more homework, less homework, no homework.  At BVP, we are clearly in the camp of more.

Does BVP have room to improve our homework?  Absolutely.  I for one would love to see more challenging longer-term projects assigned.  I would also like to see problem sets that more directly mimic the question types that our scholars will be asked to demonstrate mastery of on assessments like NECAP and PARCC (or the SATs).  Finally, I would like the help of a babysitter to proctor homework for my scholar at her dad (and most human beings whom I have met) she does not seem to love homework.

Do you have any other ideas of increasing the homework rigor? Please leave them in the comments section below.

Friday, February 8, 2013

On Closing School, Version 2

Back in October I wrote my first entry on school closings - the difficulty of the decision, getting it right, getting it wrong, timing of storms, communications.

Since then, we have made two bad calls:

  1. Several weeks ago we opened per usual and suddenly, at arrival time, we got three inches of snow in about an hour.  Roads were super slick, accidents all over the place, and the driveways in our schools were a mess.
  2. Two weeks ago we called for a delay based on a really bad forecast.  Of course, basically nothing happened.
In both cases, BVP followed the path of the sending districts.  Both times were misses.

Today, as we prepare for the blizzard of a lifetime, school is closed.  Based on the forecasted timing and intensity of the storm, some things are obvious: it would be crazy to have school events Friday night or Saturday.  It would also be a bad idea to have kids on buses at 5PM.

But, why not a half day?  With the forecast of a few inches by 2PM, why not have scholars come in from 7:30-11:30 and get a bunch of hard work in the books? (get it, it's a pun, "in-the-books").  We have learning to do, right?!

I exchanged tweets with meteorologist Fred Campanga and confirmed in my mind the right decision - let's have a half-day.

And then it started. A few schools starting to cancel, including Providence.  And then a few more.  At 2PM on Thursday we joined a call with RIEMA directed by RIDE and the Governor's Office.  Without a drop of snow on the ground, district by district announced they would cancel.  A few have teachers coming in for a 1/2 day, and only a couple were considering 1/2 with kids and teachers.

But the sense of superintendents bullying one another into closing was palpable - and one superintendent called it out directly to say, "I don't want to cancel, but how can I stay open when everyone around me is closing without a drop of snow on the ground?"

And one school, whose principal I later called to praise - she goes by "No Close Rose" - explained to me her thinking: parents have to go to work, kids have to learn, kids need to eat.  There is urgent work to do.

I pitched to my own leadership team the idea of at least having staff come in to get some of our urgent work done - that's the complaint people have - not enough time to work together.  They looked at me like I had six suggested I would be thrashed with pitchforks (I'm not sure if she meant the teachers would do that to me or if she was speaking for herself...).

So today, BVP is closed.  I'm going in this morning.  There's work to do!

And what is one very real consequence?

Despite our longer day, if we fall below 180 days, BVP will need to make up time.  We are prohibited from going into July for days, so that means adding on days at the end of June, running full school days on Good Friday, April Break, and/or Saturdays.  In just learning that days with two-hour delays may not count as official days, our six day buffer because of our 186 day calendar is down to two after today.  Plus, there's a very good chance roads and sidewalks will still be impassable on Monday...  

So, let's hope this is the last of the storms this winter, because I for one would like to go away for April break!

Monday, February 4, 2013

"We were made to be awesome."

You may have already watched this pep talk from "Kid President"-- it went viral just last week. If you haven't, get busy!  

At Blackstone Valley Prep, middle school scholars watched this video during their morning meeting.  Network staff also watched it during their weekly meeting.  Nothing can put things into perspective better than a message delivered by a child.  Perhaps this is because they have the power to make adults stop and listen, which in turn unites us. If you care about kids, and I care about kids, we're not so different now, are we? 

There are many conflicts that plague the world of education today.  We debate about varied school reform efforts, about the benefits and drawbacks of different standardized assessments and about the best way to evaluate teachers (just to name a few).  These are all valid and productive conversations, provided they are rooted in the purpose of helping kids learn-- in helping kids, or students, or scholars, become what they dream about becoming.  

All too often, however, these conversations are centered on how we can make life easier for ourselves, the adults.  We're all guilty of it.  It's easy to lose sight of the end-goal when you're working your hardest and giving your 110% each and every day. It's tiring, no one is debating that!  

So, whether you're already feeling energized or desperately in need of a vacation, take this pep talk to heart and know that the work you're doing, what you're creating, is helping to "make the world awesome."   Keep your head in the game.   

Kid President says it best: "If life is a game, aren't we on the same team? I mean really, right? I'm on your team, you're on my team. This is life people. You got air coming through your nose. You've got a heartbeat. That means it's time to do something!"  

And there's so much to do--you already know that much.  But, if you've somehow forgotten this along the way, know that the work you do to help our scholars is the most important thing you will ever do.  Moreover, know that you, yes you, are a vital piece of that work, and you make a difference.

Looking for more ways to get involved? Visit us at for some ideas.