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.