Tuesday, December 13, 2011

An Ode to Ice Cube

There are often times, days, in education where we feel as though we didn't do much good.  Baseball players would call it a slump, though for some reason I've never viewed it as such in education.  It just seems different than that.  In a slump you're not hitting the ball.  Sure, you may be letting your team down, but only in terms of a game won or lost.  On the days in education where I don't do much good I feel that I'm letting PEOPLE down.  If I get overly frustrated with a student there isn't a game that's won or lost.  There's a relationship that may be damaged.  If I'm not supporting a teacher as he or she deserves, animosity can quickly develop.  There's another relationship that could be damaged.

But today wasn't one of those days.  Today was a good day.  I did two things today that made me very proud, and made me feel like I did a great job at my job.

The first was that I got into the classrooms and was an instructional leader.  Because of my unique role on campus (in a nutshell: split between a teacher and an administrator) I don't get to spend as much time in classrooms as I'd like to.  When I do it's usually for short chunks of time.  Today I got to spend nearly an hour straight in one classroom observing a new teacher.  This teacher is incredibly smart, very well versed in his subject matter.  He is also on his second career, and the learning curve for new teachers dropped into high school classrooms is a steep one.  Getting to spend an extended amount of time in his room allowed me to really see where the improvement is needed.  He's a true class act, and never hesitates to come to me with questions or concerns.  So I felt very comfortable telling him my suggestions.  I forgot to mention to him that he should reflect on my suggestions, think about it over break, and see what works for him when he comes back after the New Year.  Instead he says, "Thanks Alex.  I'll implement those suggestions in tomorrow's lesson."  WOW.  What a guy!!!  I can't wait to talk to him to see how it goes!

Another way I was an instructional leader was with assessment for learning.  We did an extensive study of Understanding by Design (UbD) this summer, and our teachers have done an amazingly awesome job of implementing "Big Ideas" and "Essential Questions" into their unit and lesson designs.  Perhaps the toughest part of UbD is creating authentic, performance based assessments whose purpose is to guide and inform.  One of our math teachers nailed it, creating an assessment that allows the students to use creativity and individuality to demonstrate knowledge about special quadrilaterals.  But she was stuck with her rubric.  It didn't align with the tasks.  She came to me, we talked, and she revamped the rubric in a way that will empower the students to better understand what "advanced" looks like.  The kids are not only going to demonstrate their knowledge but they're going to REMEMBER it long-term as a result of this assessment.  I have no doubt.

So while it felt great to be an instructional leader, in it's truest sense, I did something else today that was also good.  It was far better, actually.  I was a human being.

We have a few kids on campus with whom we are working VERY HARD to get to do the right thing and make the right choices.  One in particular I've butted heads with; often in the past and more so recently.  I genuinely like him as a person.  He's engaging, funny, smart, and complex.  He's also defensive, aggressive, argumentative, and been through more in his sixteen or so years than any young man deserves to go through.  I am quick to forget the latter.  I badly want our teachers to be able to teach and this young man seems to be going out of his way to prevent that.  This, of course, also prevents his peers from learning.  I see this as unfair and unjust.

At least I did until today.  I'm not sure what came over me, but for some reason today I only saw the good.  I saw a young kid who wants to learn, who wants to be cared for, who has perspective and wants to contribute.  I saw the boy hidden behind the anger.  So when I saw him in the hall, out of class (big surprise there), instead of hounding him I walked up to him and gave him a hug.  He didn't hug back, just kind of looked at me with a "WTF" expression on his face.  I said, "Come with me."  We walked outside and I told him, "I owe you an apology.  I feel like I could be a better person, a better educator, for you.  I'm going to do better, and I just wanted to tell you that."  He said thank you, that he appreciated it, and I quickly walked away before he could see my eyes welling up with tears.

It felt incredible.  Who knows when it will hit him.  Maybe today, maybe in five years.  But I'm going to be there for him no matter what from here on out.  I'm not going to let him down.  I'm going to show him, every day, that I care and that I'll support him.  Regardless of what he does or how he acts.  For him I'm going to be a better educator, a better person.  He deserves that.

No doubt.  Today was a good day.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lessons From Under Center

(Part 1 of a 3-part series)

"If the center is uncovered the first read will be closer to you.  You'll place the ball in the belly of the fullback while looking at the defensive tackle.  If the defensive tackle moves towards the fullback you'll pull the ball and head on to your next read.  If the defensive tackle heads up field you give the ball.  If the center is covered it's the same read with the exception that it will happen wider out.  In either case if the defensive tackle does commit to the fullback you move on to your next read.  Attack the defensive end at his downfield shoulder.  If the defensive end commits to you, pitch the ball to the tailback.  If the defensive end commits to the tailback turn upfield and gain yardage.  Analyze each situation and make all of the correct decisions within about 2 seconds."

Those were the instructions as I learned the triple option for the first time as a sophomore quarterback in high school.  That singular lesson has probably guided me in my adult life more than any other lesson before or since (with the exception of "treat others as you would like to be treated").  Not that I spend a lot of time running the triple option anymore, but I do spend quite a bit of time analyzing, making decisions on the fly, reading people, and getting the ball in the right person's hands.  Football, specifically quarterback, taught me more of those skills than anything else in my life has.  As a matter of fact, sports in general, in my opinion, have more to do with my success as an educator today than ANYTHING I learned in an academic setting.

Let's take a quick look at some specific lessons that were either directly or indirectly taught to me through sports, with my focus on football, and see how those have transferred from the field to the classroom to an administrator's desk to my life...

1) You don't always win. 

Probably the first thing sports taught me.  Not only do you not always win the game, you often don't always win the starting job, the block, the play, etc.  But you do ALWAYS keep playing.  You fall behind in the score, you keep playing.  You get beat on a play and give up a touchdown, you keep playing.  You fail, you keep playing.  Even back in elementary school we had a rule: losers walk.  We'd play pick-up football all the time, and after a team would score a touchdown the other team would walk to the other side of the field to await the kickoff.  Losers walk.  It didn't mean you were a loser as a human being, or even a loser of the game (since it was only one touchdown, you could still win).  But it was a phrase and no one cared about not being PC.  You were called a loser, for two seconds, until you got the ball back.  Then you tried to score and when you did THEY were the losers who walked.  And when it was all over you all went to someone's house, drank some juice, and jumped into the pool to play another game. 

It's the same today.  In the classroom there are good lessons and bad lessons.  As an administrator I speak with one parent who thanks me for what I did and with another who is upset with something else I did.  As a school we may have a breakthrough with one student who changes her ways and we may fail with another who ends up being expelled.  But we keep playing.

2) Things usually don't end up as planned.  This can be good, and this can be bad.

Going into my junior year, my first year on varsity, a few of us were hanging out with two guys who had just graduated.  They were looking at our upcoming schedule and predicting we'd go 6-4 in the regular season.  They weren't jerks, they were actually nice and smart guys.  They were just being honest.  We went 9-1.  Going into my senior year, probably a bit too cocky from the previous year, we had hopes of going 10-0.  We went 7-3. 

There's just too much that happens in between that you don't have control over.  The same thing happens in a school-year, even in a school-day.  You don't know if the kid sitting on the fence between behaving and erupting got a good night's rest, was told by his dad that morning that he's not going to amount to anything, or if the girl he likes batted her eyes at him before class.  You don't know if the math department is going to gel the way you hope they do, if the team is going to work together with a singular focus or disband after one hectic meeting.  You don't know if the newly implemented bell schedule is going to have the intended benefits or be just another feeble attempt at changing for change's sake.  You can plan, and you can hope.  But somewhere along the way other stuff just happens. 

3) The game is bigger than you.

As I, a puny sophomore just trying to get better, sat in a team meeting comprised of both varsity and junior varsity players (I was part of the latter), I watched and listened.  Our coach was up at the board teaching, and we were taking notes and learning.  There was a junior wide receiver who had played varsity the year before as a sophomore and who everyone knew would be a starter.  He would ask questions such as, "So when I go in motion, do I slow down after passing the tackle?"  Then there was the senior quarterback, who had played varsity for the past two years and who EVERYONE knew was going to be the starter.  He would ask questions such as, "So when the quarterback drops back on this play, is his first read the outside linebacker?"  He never said "I" or "me" when asking, even though he and everyone else in the room knew he'd be the starting quarterback.  He was then and is to this day one of my role models.

It's not about you.  It's not about your instructional strategies being the best, your discipline polices being the most effective, you being the one who gets credit.  In the words of Dan Meyer, "...and the profit on free has been unreal.  I get way more than I give."  It's about the KIDS, and nothing else.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Things that are ubiqitous today that either didn't exist or were VERY sparse in 1989, when I was a freshman in high school:

iPods (and their non-Apple counterparts)
iPhones (and their non-Apple counterparts)
iPads (you get the point)
cell phones
the internet
hybrid cars
blue ray
digital music and video
online shopping
online securities trading
video chat
INSTANT access to information

My schedule on the first day of school in 1989:
Freshman English
Spanish 1

The schedule of a typical freshman who started high school this year, 2011:
Freshman English
Algebra or Geometry
A foreign language
An elective

I'm not the only one who sees something wrong here, am I?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

8 Weeks Later

This post talked about how difficult it was for me to find time to write; it was written three days before Lucy Belle was born.  Here we are eight weeks later and life is busier than I could have ever imagined.  This isn't a sob story, I'm happy to be busy with an amazing wife and two wonderful, healthy daughters.  I just wish I could write more.  I need the reflection.  I need the outlet.  And I have SO MUCH to write.  It seems like each week I have a great idea for a post and a few days later I find myself wondering, "What was that great idea I had planned on writing about???"

For those of you who are as busy as me and still find time to regularly post, how do you do it?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Khan Academy, Part Deux

(Preface to this entry...CST results are of minor importance to me.  That will be a topic for a not-so-distant future post.)

In response to Dan's inquiry...

Khan Academy, in my view, fills less of a need and more of a demand.  Some might find those words synonymous at first glance, but they're not.  My household has a need and a demand for food.  My household has a demand for a new Hyundai Sonata, but certainly not a need.  I do not feel that Khan Academy fills the NEED for instruction or skill practice but can be an excellent resource for the demand for both.

My affection and appreciation for Khan Academy and the value it provides comes from my own work.  Almost exactly two years ago I was at a different site serving as a full-time math teacher.  40% of my caseload was Algebra 1.  I did an analysis of the previous six years of CST results from Algebra 1 at my site.  The best in each category in the previous six years was as follows:

Advanced: 1% of students
Proficient: 16% of students
Basic: 35% of students
Below Basic: 39% of students
Far Below Basic: 9%

The averages for the previous six years:

Advanced: 0.4%
Proficient: 8.7%
Basic: 29.8%
Below Basic: 46.4%
Far Below Basic: 14.7%

I was disgusted.  In the previous six years my school was averaging 60% of our students scoring in the bottom two categories?!?!  I felt we were doing our kids a disservice.  I committed to making a difference in those scores for my Algebra 1 students.  I went all Jaime Escalante on them.  I brought them and their parents/guardians in one evening to show them the levels of (or lack of) achievement at the school in the previous six years.  I explained to them what it would take to change those numbers.  I gave them my cell phone number.  They could call or text at anytime and I would help them out.  We met in my classroom on Saturday mornings from 9-noon.  We did math.  We played.  We went outside or into the gym halfway through and ran around.  We ate (they had to eat a certain number of carrots and peanuts before they were allowed to touch the donuts).  But we worked and learned and had a blast.  The kids loved it.  I called it RISE...Radically Increase Student Excellence.

And then came winter break and two-and-a-half weeks without seeing them in class or at RISE.  I was nervous about losing the ground we had gained.  So I created videos and posted them online.  The kids had to watch the videos and email or text me their answers to a couple of problems.  It was a huge success.  Not only did we not lose ground but we gained ground.  We came back from break in January and picked up right where the videos left off.  I had 59 Algebra 1 students and 41 of them were RISE students (routinely attended on Saturday mornings).  Here's our results:

All 59 students:
Advanced: 0%
Proficient: 34%
Basic: 36%
Below Basic: 24%
Far Below Basic: 6%

41 RISE students:
Advanced: 0%
Proficient: 41%
Basic: 37%
Below Basic: 17%
Far Below Basic: 5%

I was ecstatic.  But it had nothing to do with the scores.  It was because the kids proved to themselves that they didn't have to settle for below average.  They demonstrated that with some hard work, with some extra work, they could do better than what had been previously expected of them.  My online videos were a part of that.  A small part, but a part nonetheless. 

So that's why I love Khan Academy.  From the website:

"The Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. We're a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere."

Someone tell me what's wrong with that.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Khan Academy

I love Sal Khan.

I don't know the guy, but I love what he's doing and how he's doing it.  There's quite a bit of debate about it.  It's gaining some national attention.  And anytime you can share the stage with Bill Gates you've got something serious going on.  But I love it, and here's why...

Sal is probably about my age (36 as of today, actually), I'm guessing.  Which means he was sitting in a high school math class about the same time I was.  (on a side note, he was probably paying a lot more attention than I was.)  There was very little technology being used in math instruction at that time.  There were probably more than a few CHALKBOARDS in classrooms at that time.  So at some point along the way Sal recognized a demand and supplied the supply.

Most of the debate that I hear focuses on whether or not Sal's Khan Academy is the new wave, the best thing since the previous best thing.  Is the "flipped classroom" going to be how education is conducted?  Is Sal going to save America's education system.  My response?  Who cares.  And honestly, in spite of what he said at his TED talk, I don't think Sal cares.

"...we're on a mission to help you learn what you want, when you want, at your own pace."
             - KhanAcademy homepage

Every time Sal talks about how Khan Academy got started he brings up the fact that he did this for his cousins.  He was tutoring family members.  Very few people tutor family members with the ulterior motive of transforming a nation's educational system.  Sal tutored his cousins, recognized that it was working, probably enjoyed what he was doing, and off he goes.  He was a hedge fund analyst.  It's my guess he didn't go into distance tutoring for the cash.  But it picked up steam, people responded, and now he's got a good thing going on.  Of course when he speaks he's going to talk about the different ways the videos can be used.  Of course he's going to talk about how great his product is, and can be.  It is, however, pretty clear to me what his mission is, since it's right there on the homepage.

I'm a teacher, an (sort-of) administrator, and a father.  Is there really anymore we should want from our students and kids than to have them recognize a need in the world, find a way to fulfill that need, and do it in a way that helps people?

Keep it up Sal.  You've got one fan in me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Extended Tweet

I read the stream coming through my twitter every day. That's the core of my professional development. I read so many good articles, blog posts, comments. It's non-stop. But I'm a non-contributer. I tweet once every two months, and they're rarely full of substance. I have this blog to reflect and share and I rarely post.

My day usually starts at 5am. I wake up that early to do work that I don't want to do in the evenings. My daughter is 15 months old. My second daughter will be delivered this Monday (it's a scheduled c-section, that's why I know the exact date). I do work at 5am because I don't want to take any waking time away from my daughter or from my wife. So I work, drink coffee, get ready. I usually leave around 7-ish. I work on campus from then until about 4 or 4:30, depending on the day. So I'm home by 4:45 and I play with my daughter until we've fed her, bathed her, and put her to bed at 7:30. If I can keep my eyes open I hang out with my wife, play some wordswithfriends (she's been beating me so much lately!!), and drink a glass or two of wine. Then I fall asleep with The West Wing playing in the background.

So when do you people tweet and post blogs??? Where do you find the time? I just cannot take any more time from my family than I already do. I want to (tweet and post blogs, not take more time from my family) but I love them too freaking much! I have so much to contribute to this conversation, so many IDEAS to share, but for right now the only ears they fall on are my wife's. And a buddy every now and then.

From the moment I step on campus until the moment I leave I give all I've got. Rarely does a day pass where I get home and my feet aren't tired. I feel like I need the ice whirlpool more than I did after football practice in college. And when I walk in the door I give all I've got to my daughter, and will somehow find some more to give when daughter two gets here. And when that's done I've got no' mo'. I'm spent.

So forgive me for not contributing more right now. I will, somehow. I promise. I just don't know when.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Parental Assessment

I've been a parent for all of fourteen months now, so I think it's fair to say that my thoughts on the following are, at the most, expert level.

When it's all said and done I don't think it will be fair to assess my work as a parent until my children are at least eighteen years old. Probably much older, considering that much of what I do today is still reflective of lessons my parents taught me many years ago. Speaking of my parents, they split when I was in seventh grade. Much of what I do today is probably reflective of what I was taught before their split. However, much of what I remember learning came after their split, and came from my mom. If someone was to assess her job as a parent they would look at me, my sister (2 years older), and my brother (4 years younger) as the empirical evidence justifying their "grade". Personally I'd give her an A (no way that grade is biased), because in all honesty the three of us are decent, ethical, happy individuals. We don't break the law. We help others when we can. We aren't saving the world (at least not yet), but we're productive, positive contributing citizens. That's certainly a job well done on her part.

But could that job have been assessed twenty years ago, when I was fifteen? And if not, why is the job of teachers and administrators and educators assessed and scrutinized solely on the past year? And not even the past year...the past eight or nine (out of ten) months of instruction? Because it makes perfect sense that standardized exams should take place in April and May, not at the latest possible time. "Hey future lawyers...law school is three years long, but let's administer the LSAT after 2.75 years. That last quarter of a year isn't all that important." I digress.

Education has gotten an awfully bad rap in recent times, especially the past few years. The topic of teacher assessment, a job that as much as any has an infinite amount of outside forces applying pressure and restraints... ("Hey there kiddo, what do you say? Your mom's boyfriend came home last night drunk and you had to provoke him so he didn't hit her? And you slept on a paper thin mattress in a room with your two little brothers and your cousin? And you didn't eat breakfast? I can't imagine that there's much on your mind, so just write down this learning objective and be sure to buy into the fact that solving systems of equations is going to be imperative for you to learn.")...is where we immediately turn our focus. And we focus on the immediate. Forget the fact that tomorrow morning, on the day before our school-year starts, I'm doing an activity with our staff where we finish the following sentence on a note-card, "I got into education because...," and that my sentence will conclude with, "...my fifth grade teacher was incredible, enthusiastic, and fun. And as a ten year-old I can remember watching him, being entertained and inspired by him, and thinking, 'Man it sure would be cool to have a job where I'm THAT happy!'" Because that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that it was twenty-five years ago and Mr. Stewart still has that effect on me. The teachers in the room with me tomorrow will still be, for the most part, "graded" by what they do between Tuesday and late April, when our standardized tests are administered. But what really matters will never be tested, will never be assessed, until twenty-so years from now when someone asks them who inspired them to be who they are. Why is that?
My daughter is fourteen months old. By most accounts she's great. She smiles a ton. A friend recently commented, "I can't believe how advanced Ellie is." I didn't know what to compare her to. He said he was amazed that when she got to a step I told her, "Step down Ellie," and she did. What else was I gonna tell her? If she becomes a compulsive shoplifter in her teen years am I still a good dad for what I've gotten her to do recently? I sure don't think so (and my thoughts are expert). So let's cut teachers some slack. Let's develop a model that somehow assesses school systems on how they prepare students for the world. Let's create a longitudinal study for every school district based on statistics of citizenship, philanthropic contribution, volunteer hours served, mitzvahs completed, etc. Let's factor in the litany of other factors, such as SES status, obstacles overcome, opportunities for growth realized. Let's stop using as the bar for a successful parent the accomplishments of a toddler, or a teenager, and instead look at the adult citizen participating in a democratic society. Only then will we know how we're doing as educators.

Let's progress.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Why solveforwhy?

Hi there. I'm Alex. I'll be blogging here.

Let's see...the particulars are that I'm 35, a very happily married husband and father of one and one on the way. I've been a full time teacher since 2004, teaching high school algebra, geometry, algebra 2, remediation classes, and leadership classes. After six and a half years at the same school I moved on to my current assignment, Lead Teacher and Math Teacher at ACE Charter High School. We are just a few days away from finishing our inaugural year and already my position is evolving. I'll drop 1/3 of my teaching assignment next year and pick up administrative duties. The plan is to be our full time AP in year three.

Solveforwhy was created because I was reading Chris Lehman and Dan Meyer and knew that I needed to get these thoughts and ideas out of my head and into the existing discussion. Sure solveforwhy is a play on words with math but it definitely describes how I've always been. As a college football player I found myself observing the way that the program was operated and wondering what could be done to allow it, or rather cause it, to run more efficiently and effectively. I was very interested in leadership and made a point to ask myself what I would do if I was in that position, be it head coach, teacher, principal, dad, etc. So understanding the 'why' of what was happening, of what decisions were being made, of the way people were conducting themselves, was constantly (and still is) at the forefront of my observations.

I want to be a school leader. Some places call it that. Other places call it principal. Whatever the title, I do want to be that guy. And, at least right now, I feel that I want to do it for the right reasons. I want to foster an environment that gives kids a voice. I want to lead an organization that forces neither teaching nor learning on anyone. I want to inspire and lead teachers to become the best versions of themselves, which will hopefully lead them to inspire and lead students to do the same. Outside of being a dad and a husband I'm more passionate about this than I have ever been about anything.

But I don't see it happening enough, and that's something else I want to do. Like Chris, I want to show others that it can and must be done. I want to help figure out why it's not happening everywhere and help find solutions that we can all implement. I want to be part of the struggle. It is, in my opinion, not only a worthy struggle but also an enormously challenging one. And for some reason I've always been drawn to those.

That all sounds a bit save-the-world-ish, and honestly that's not me. I'm more of a "be the change you wish to see" kind of guy. I think that blogging is going to help me do that. For as long as I can remember I've reflected and wondered and contemplated. It's been that conversation in my head, and with others, that has slowly shaped me into the educator I am today. But I'm recognizing that to take it a step further I need to put those reflections and wonders and contemplations out there for others to read, talk about, comment on, criticize, even classify as absurd. Someone other than my wife.

So with the end of the school year just around the corner and a list of about 6-7 topics I'm ready to start typing about I kick off solveforwhy. Welcome, I hope you enjoy, and I hope I can learn.