Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Committed Sardines

I received this from a teacher in our building - it is awesome!!

What's a Committed Sardine? 

First, an aside. A blue whale is the largest mammal on earth. An adult blue whale is the length of 2 1/2 Greyhound buses put end to end, weighs more than a fully loaded 737, has blood vessels large enough for an adult to swim down, a heart the size of a Volkswagon Beetle, and a tongue 8' long and weighs 6000 lbs. A baby blue whale is estimated to gain more than 50 pounds an hour from birth to age one. (now that's a high fat diet - certainly not Atkins). The blue whale is not only the biggest, but the loudest animal. At 190 decibels, a blue whale's call is louder than a jet (140 decibels), and much louder than a person can shout (70 decibels).

A little known fact is that a blue whale is so large that when it decides to turn around, it can take 2 to 3 minutes to turn 180 degrees so that it can swim in the opposite direction. As a result, some people have drawn a strong parallel between blue whales and our school systems. It just seems to take forever for schools to turn things around. Our ability to adapt to changing times helps explain at least in part the rise in demand for vouchers, charter schools, home schooling and virtual schools. There are some people who just don't believe or don't want the public school system to turn things around in time.

But compare the way a blue whale turns around (slowly) to how a school of fish turns around - specifically a school of sardines - which has the same or even a greater mass than the whale, does the same thing. A school of sardines can turn almost instantly. So the question that comes up is - How do they do this? How do they know when to turn. Is it ESP? Do they use cell phones? Are the using the Internet

The answer is simultaneously a little simpler and quite a bit more complex. If you take a careful look at a school of sardines, you'll notice that although the fish all appear to be swimming in the same direction, in reality, at any time, there will be a small group of sardines swimming in a different direction, in an opposite direction, against the flow, against conventional wisdom. And as they swim in another direction, they cause conflict, they cause friction, and they causes discomfort for the rest of the school.

But finally, when a critical mass of truly committed sardines is reached - not a huge number like 50 percent or 80 percent of the school, but 15 to 20 percent who are truly committed to a new direction - the rest of the school suddenly turns and goes with them – almost instantaneously!
Isn't that what has happened with our attitudes towards drinking and driving? Isn't that what became of our feelings about smoking? Isn't that exactly what happened to the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union? Isn't that what caused the Internet to suddenly appear overnight. Each and every one of those events was an overnight success that took years in the making. Overnight successes that took a small group of people who were truly committed despite the obstacles, challenge, yabbuts, and TTWWADIs to make the necessary change.
Noted anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote:

"Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world -
indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

That's why we're Committed Sardines - Thinking Outside The Can!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Inquiry - Let the fun begin!!

Our district had the opportunity to have Steph Harvey come and speak to all our K-8 teachers on a staff development day.  The foundations for our K-8 buildings is leadership (based on 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and inquiry.  We have had an opportunity to really integrate leadership into our schools.  Steph was our kick off to integrating inquiry.

Below are some random take-a-ways from our day with her:

  • kids really want to know stuff
  • all kids are desperate to learn
  • instantaneous access has changed our lives, but the need to be curious never changes
  • we need to cultivate the natural curiosity that all students begin school with
  • most direct rout to learning is engagement, the most direct route to engagement is FUN
  • every 5 minutes of whole group instruction students need time to process - turn and talk
  • if students can't make up their own minds someone will do it for them
  • learning is a consequence of thinking
  • we turn info into knowledge by thinking about it
  • smart is not something you are it is something you get
  • the questions students ask after reading a text are a better assessment than the questions the student can answer about the text
The final take-a-ways are that teachers need to be the chief learners in the classroom and principals need to be the chief learners in the building.  The adults in the building need to learn something completely new so they can experience what our students are going through on a daily basis.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Simplify "Reform"

This is an e-mail I wrote to the legislator from my district in Minnesota after getting into a discussion on Twitter regarding education reform.


Sorry this took so long to get to you, but it has been a crazy couple of days at school.  I am not sure this is what you were looking for, but this is my thoughts on strengthening our education system in Minnesota.

Most of what I believe I have gotten from Mike Schmoker, Doug Reeves, and Rick DuFour - so I don' t claim to have come up with any of this on my own, but I do believe strongly in the principles and have worked to implement these in the districts (Farmington and now Owatonna) I have worked in over the past six years.

We have over complicated "education reform".  I learned along time ago - mostly in coaching - that when I focused on the essentials my teams and students did better.  As I was asked to do more (added initiatives) or became distracted with things that were not essential my players and students performed worse.

If we truly want to improve education we must focus on the essentials.  I contend those are not that hard to figure out.  We know the number one factor in student achievement is instruction.  Teaching has six to ten times as much impact on achievement as all other factors.  So if we want to impact the achievement of all students we need to improve instruction.

Here is what I think needs to happen to improve instruction:

A) Each district needs to identify a coherent curriculum based on state standards that is actually taught.  These power standards should be about 1/3 to 1/2 of the state standards.  This would allow these standards to be taught in adequate depth with adequate time for reading, writing, and discussion arounds essential topics.  Instead of simply covering standards to get them all done, students would be able to apply their learning.  Teachers would also have time to do frequent checks for understanding (formative assessments) and react to student needs immediately.

B) Implement structurally sounds lessons.  These lessons would involve 1) teacher modeling -where the teacher explicitly thinks out loud so students can hear how an expert in the subject thinks while working with the content.  This is a significant departure from lecture.  2) there would be intervals where the students are allowed to practice or apply what has been taught while the teacher is there to guide and observe (guided practice).  This would typically be done in pairs or small groups.  3) Throughout all of this there would be forms of checking for understanding.  This on-going check for understanding allows the teacher to see what needs to be clarified, who has mastered who has not, when instruction needs to slow down, and when it can speed up.  Teachers can react to student needs immediately.

C) There needs to be more authentic literacy within our schools.  Authentic literacy is purposeful reading, writing, and talking.  This is the key to learning both content and thinking skills.

D) The above suggestions are much more effective if teachers work in teams. This type of team work - work focused on student learning - is commonly called a PLC.  PLCs work is centered on four questions 1) what do want students to learn (power standards) 2) how will we know if they have learned it (check for understanding/formative assessment) 3) what will we do if they don't learn it 4) what will we do if they have already mastered it.

Does this sound too simple?  I don't think so.  Jim Collins found the "essence of profound insight into organization improvement is simplicity.  If priorities are not simplified and clarified they are at the mercy of the next new thing.  This is what has happened in education.