Sunday, August 29, 2010

Education is not the filling of a pail...

You don't have to know me very long to find out that I am a quote guy.  What I mean by that is that I love quotes.  I think their allure for me is some combination of my fascination with history and my drive toward efficiency.  I love learning from the past.  I enjoy gaining wisdom from those who have gone before me.  That being said, I don't want to read volume after volume of classic works to gain that knowledge.  That is where quotes come in...they are like the Cliffs Notes of knowledge...just the facts, none of the filler.

One of my favorite educationally related quotes is this: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but rather the lighting of a fire."  It is not a new concept, William Buckner Yates is credited with saying it in the early 1900's.  But the simple truth in this quote has the power, if applied correctly, to shake much of our educational system to the core.  If we asked many American students which educational analogy seemed most accurate to them...the filling of a pail or the lighting of a fire, I would venture that many of them would liken it to the filling of the pail.  I know much of my life as a student was spent by teachers trying to fill my pail.  They poured in multiplication tables and sentence structure and verb conjugations and the stages of photosynthesis and the list goes on.  I figured out early that the teacher was the smart one and they would dispense knowledge to me.  I learned that I was blessed with a pretty good pail.  It had plenty of room and it didn't seem to leak much.  The teacher would pour the knowledge in, and come test time, most of it was still there for me to pour back out.  Every kid had a different pail.  Some were better than mine, a lot were worse.  We eventually figured out that the ones who could learn, remember, and regurgitate knowledge were the "smart kids"  the ones who couldn't, were not.  Kids figure this out quick, and it is one of the most dangerous lessons they learn.  Most kids are their own worst critics.  By the time they reach upper elementary they know exactly what kind of pail they have and if theirs makes it difficult to memorize and regurgitate, they have labeled themselves as poor students and have already begun to check out.    What they don't realize is that they are not poor students, they are poor memorizers.  In my opinion, there should be a difference. 

Now would be a good time to issue a disclaimer.  I am not trying to say that we should abandon all facts and that kids should not memorize 4x4 is 16.  There are basic facts and mental procedures that we all need to know and be able to do.  What I am suggesting however, is that, especially at the high school level, we need to take the time to put down the pail and light the fire.

By the time kids get to 9th grade they have built up nine years of experience with their current employer.  They know the ropes.  They have a pretty good idea where they fit in the educational hierarchy.  Some of them have had water thrown on their fire for years.  Many of them have reached the point where they are putting out their own fire.  So that is our challenge.  We need to start rebuilding that flame.

How do we do that?  It starts by engaging them.  Some schools seem to believe that it is the students job to be engaged.  That is like the producers of a show that no one is watching saying "We made a great show, people should be watching!  It is not our fault they aren't, its theirs!"  It is not their job to be engaged, it is our job to engage them.  We have to find ways to light their fire and get them excited about true learning.  Here's the good my first few observations I have already seen this happening in classrooms throughout  Okoboji High School.  The faculty of our school know that it is part of the job description of a teacher to engage their students.  They do this by approaching each class and each day with enthusiasm.  They do this by giving each student individual attention and monitoring their progress.  They also do this by confronting their students with rigorous and relevant learning opportunities that challenge them to communicate, collaborate, and create.

Make no mistake, every kid has a fire.  Every kid can be engaged.  Some kids spend hours upon hours riding on a skateboard or talking with their friends.  Others will sit motionless for amazing periods of time trying to conquer the next level of their favorite video game.  Our challenge is to keep that going when kids walk through our doors.  To engage them with the types of learning that will prepare them to be successful in whatever life holds for them.  When we stoke the passion and creativity that exists within each student the results can be amazing. 

I will leave you with an example of what can happen when young people are engaged. The young men that created this video are passionate about basketball.  The number of hours spent by this group to create this clip must have been staggering.  Imagine if we could harness this type of energy and fire in a classroom filled with 25 students...that would truly be amazing.

Have a great week!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ready or Not...Here They Come!!

The signs are all around us...the crowds are growing smaller, it is getting easier to drive down highway 71, and sandals are on clearance at WalMart.  That's right, summer is coming to an end.  My family and I visited Arnold's Park this weekend and you could almost feel the end of summer in the air.  Another sure sign of the changing of the seasons occurred throughout the Okoboji School District last week, teachers and support staff reported back for the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year. 

I often get asked by students, "What exactly do you guys do when we aren't there?"  My usual response with a hint of sarcasm is "mainly sit around and talk about you."  This answer of course is a JOKE and completely NOT TRUE (but it does make for an interesting reaction before I tell them I am kidding :-) )  In truth the days before students arrive are spent busily preparing as a staff and individually for the oncoming year.  The staff of OHS have been hard at work preparing to make the 2010-2011 school year our best one yet. 

I love the rhythm of a school year.  There is a true ebb and flow to it and I always liken a school year to a good book.  There is a definite beginning and end and usually a lot of twists and turns along the way.  We all have a pretty good idea where we are going to end up but the details that fill in along the way are always what sets each year apart from another.  We will have our good times, our rough times, and a whole lot in between.

One of the things I always like to do this time of year is try to inspire my staff and motivate them to get the year off to a great start.  I remind them how important their jobs are and how enthusiasm is infectious.  If we are excited to be here and excited to work with our students, the students will be excited as well.  I also try to challenge them.  One of the things I shared with them this year was an blog entry that found its way to me through Twitter.  It is an open letter to teachers on the start of the school year and it encapsulates much of what I have encouraged my teachers to do this year.  You can read the original post here:

Here are a few highlights....
  • Take lots of risks for the sake of learning
  • Make a concentrated effort to learn something new that has little to do with your classroom and share it with your students - be a model of lifelong learning
  • Don't work all of the time - education is a job that can chew up A LOT of time.  Keep your priorities straight.  Don't cheat your family to spend more time working...if you do, no one wins.  A good teacher is a balanced teacher, not a workaholic.
  • Model the behaviors and habits you want to see in your students.  Students are always watching and they are the first to spot when your words and actions don't line up.  Lead by example.  If we want optimistic students, show them optimism.  If we want determined students, show them determination.  If we want problem solvers, let them see you overcoming obstacles and the work it takes to do so.  This also goes for learning to be good citizens.  One of my favorite educational quotes comes from former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett.  It says:
   “For children to take morality seriously they must be in the presence of adults who take morality seriously. And with their own eyes they must see adults take morality seriously.”
  •   Have fun
  • Work on your "crap detector" and teach your students to develop theirs.  We are bombarded with information constantly and much of it just is not accurate.  Teaching students how to discern the truth from the lies and the important from the unimportant will serve them well.  
And the last point in the post may be my says "Do good stuff."  If we all committed to doing that as much as we could in all walks of life, what a wonderful world it would be!

Enjoy these first days of school.  Whatever your involvement with our great district, lets make 2010-2011 Okoboji's best year yet! 

Have a great week!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Power of Communication

My little countdown clock to the beginning of the first day of school seems to be moving faster and faster.  In just over a week the hallways of OHS will once again resonate with the sounds of young minds being challenged and expanded.  This week I eagerly anticipate Thursday as our entire faculty returns to once again roll up our sleeves and take on the challenge embodied in the Okoboji Community Schools mission statement.

Over the course of my career I have learned many things.  One of the foremost of these is the power of communication.  The ability to communicate is critical to success in any position of leadership.  Good communication can keep people moving in the same direction, create and sustain a common vision of the future, and prevent or minimize misunderstandings and other problems along the way.  A lack of communication can create confusion, resentment, and resistance.  As I prepared for my transition into this new role I set several goals for myself in terms of communication.  A couple of my goals in the area of communication are:

  • To meet with each stakeholder that works in the building individually to see our school through their eyes.  What they see as strengths, where they see potential for improvement, and what they view as their role in accomplishing our mission.
  • To regularly communicate with stakeholders outside of the building through a variety of means.  This includes mass and individual emails, meetings, phone calls, and blogging. 
I started my Okoboji High School blog at 10:05pm on June 25th with a post introducing myself and our family to anyone who might be listening.  At first I was sure that number would be very small.  In fact one of the lines in my first post was

"Since this is my first post and it is not yet the first of July, right now I am certainly writing to an audience of one...myself.  However, in the future I hope that this becomes a place for stakeholders of the Okoboji High School to gain information and insights regarding our school."

I hoped that awareness and interest in this method of communication would grow over time and eventually the time I was investing would pay some dividend in terms of increasing communication between myself and the stakeholders of OHS.  And it did...much faster than I had anticipated.  As I sit here, less than two months later, writing my 7th post I am amazed to see the hit counter at the bottom of my blog topping 900 views.  I have been impressed before at the power of social media but once again it has surprised me.  At this rate, by the time I actually get to meet most students for the first time, on the first day of school, this blog will have been visited over 1000 times.  Those are 1000 opportunities to communicate with people integral to the mission of our school that would not have happened without this medium.  Throughout the summer and especially last week at registration I had a number of people introduce themselves.  I was very surprised by how often, "nice to meet you" was followed by "I've been following your blog all summer!"  I have even had students mention that they have been reading.  What an awesome way to get to know each other and share ideas.

So as I celebrate the climb toward 1000 hits I feel the need to raise the stakes and kick it up a notch.  Although many have come here to read, few have come here to participate.  Only on rare occasions have people left comments.  Most of those came last week after my post on making homework, schoolwork and the comments were wonderful!  Blog communication is great but it can be even more powerful if it is not one-directional.  So I challenge you.  If I say something that sparks thought in your head, let me know!  If I say something with which you whole-heartedly agree, let me know!  If I say something that you think is ridiculous hogwash, let me know that too!  (politely of course :-))  Challenge my thinking as I hope I am challenging yours.

Thank you for being a part of this journey so far and I look forward to see where it and the year before us take us all!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Should Homework be Schoolwork?

I got the chance to attend my first School Administrators of Iowa Conference last week.  This is my fifth year in administration but due to various conflicts I had never before been able to attend.  The conference is held annually in early August in Des Moines.  Hundreds of administrators from all over the state gather to learn, network, and discuss topics relevant to schools.  I must say it was an outstanding conference and really challenged the thinking of a lot of people including myself.  Our entire Okoboji administrative team was there and we had some really thought provoking conversations during and after many of the sessions. 

One of the presenters was especially memorable for his presentation style, research base, and truly challenging ideas.  His name is Alan November and he has an extensive resume.  Most recently he has developed a consulting service called November Learning.  Their website is  He has also authored two books based on his research in classrooms across the country.  Mr. November presented two sessions at SAI and all members of our team attended one or both.  Mr. November presented many concepts and ideas that challenge many of the common educational assumptions we tend to hold.  He also gave many practical examples of ways educators across the country are working to improve the educational process for all students. 

Like many of this year's presenters, Mr. November believes strongly in the ability of educators using technology to alter the educational process for the better.  When used correctly, technology can empower students and enable teachers to individualize and differentiate learning to ensure all students learn and to make learning more relevant and applicable to the future we are preparing our students for. 

One of his most challenging assertions is that the model that has been used for years in school; one in which students receive group instruction in school and are sent home to practice what they have learned by doing homework, is backward.  This can be a hard idea to wrestle with.  It goes against the basic process of the American educational system for more than 100 years.  I can certainly remember being taught a lesson in school and then going home to complete "1-53 odd".  This model says the teaching of new material or concepts should be done in the large group (in class) and the students should practice individually at home.  Makes sense right? 

The problem with this method is that an overwhelming amount of research shows that when we practice something like math for example, and make a mistake, our brain remembers the mistake.  The student who is doing homework at home often does not find out they have made a mistake until the next day when they check the homework in class.  By then the mistake becomes so ingrained and the mistaken process becomes so difficult to unlearn that we are very likely to repeat the mistake.    Couple this research finding with the fact that homework is often a repetitive process - after all, practice makes perfect - and you have a recipe for disaster.  If a student makes a mistake in the process and then repeats that mistake over 10 or 20 problems, the brain will have a very well learned mistake.

If students did their "practicing" at school and were able to receive immediate feedback, the mistakes could be caught and corrected early, before the brain memorizes the mistake.Athletic practice makes a good analogy.  Lets say you are practicing basketball.  If you shot 50 free-throws but were blindfolded and were not told how many you made until you met with the coach the next day, do you think you would be able to improve? In order to improve you need immediate feedback.  You need to see which shots went in and which did not and have a coach there to give you tips on how to improve.  Mr. November says the same should be done for learning.  Practicing should be done at school. 

So where does that leave time for instruction?  How can students practice something they have not been taught?  We do not have unlimited time.  If we make homework into schoolwork when, where, and how do we "teach"?  That is what we will discuss next week...this post has gotten long enough! 
Have a great week!