Saturday, February 26, 2011

“Thanks Coach”

Much of my formation as young man was shaped within the context of sports. I have been teammates with great people and worked with remarkable coaches.   Today I still consider sports an important part of my life - you might still find me trying to keep in shape (no wise cracks please) or enjoying a game of golf every now and then (I never play enough - but don’t ask my wife!) 
Much of who I am, what I value and what I do are a reflection of my involvement in sports.  I dedicate this post to the many coaches, who along the way taught me that: practice matters, to always “be on my toes”, to keep my chin up and it’s important to trust your teammates.

Practice matters
The good coaches taught me the importance of being prepared and the value of practicing.  My very best coaches understood that true learning and improvement was rooted in the idea of trial and error.  Our practices were always a safe place to make mistakes.  (Hmmm… I wonder - would more teachers embrace and use better grading practices if they understood this sports analogy?)  To further support this point, Malcom Gladwell, in his book the Outliers, argues that to master something, you need to “practice” it for at least 10,000 hours!  While this may seem like overkill, I think you get the point.   Today, I take this spirit of preparation, practice and risk taking with me wherever I go and whatever I do!

Be on your toes.
Sports have taught me about the importance of being “fleet of foot”.  Circumstances can change quickly.  In my professional life I feel that now, more than ever, I need to be ready for change.  Ironically, although preparation is important in sports, game plans can change quickly.  I was always taught to expect the unexpected.   There were countless times that well prepared and rehearsed game plans changed within a few moments of a game starting.  The good coaches always understood that ‘being on your toes’ rather than ‘digging in your heels’ made you ready for the unexpected!  (I can still remember walking into our school gym, 5 months into my first year as principal, to discover our gym floor flooded!)  On a day to day basis, this “be on my toes” mentality keeps me ready for the exciting demands of my job!  

Trust your teammates
Having teammates that I trusted and, in turn, trusted me made me a complete athlete.  I heard the following mantra constantly by my coaches: “do your job and trust your teammate to do theirs”.   This is something I still value today.  I have come to appreciate that I am at my best when operating within a team or community.  Whether it’s within my family, school community, learning community (PLN), faith community or just with a bunch of buddies on a golf trip – I’m fully alive when in community!  I accept my personal responsibilities, but it makes a difference knowing that others “have my back”.

Keep your chin up
When our team lost a game or when I made a mistake, the good coaches always told to me to “keep your chin up – you gave all you had – learn from it and move on”.  This attitude has really stuck with me to this day.  Recently, I watched a documentary about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. While watching I discovered something remarkable about this iconic coach - his biggest regret in life was being quoted for that now famous statement:  “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”. 
In the film, a long time friend of Lombardi’s recalls a conversation he had with the coach in which he (Lombardi) says:  
“I wish I never said that… (Winning is the only thing).  What I really believe is that if you leave every fiber of what you have on that field, at the end of the game, then you’ve won…….  I never made that clear”.

Stop the presses everyone!  

It was great to hear that Vince Lombardi wanted a "redo" on his original quote. 

(As an aside, I find it shocking to see and hear coaches present this "winning is the only thing" attitude in amateur/school sports – if Vince Lombardi can figure it out – surely we in amateur sports can!).

Nonetheless, to each of my coaches, I would like to say “thanks coach” for the rich and enduring life lessons that you provided me through my involvement in sports!  

Oh and in case I failed to mention it: Winning isn't everything – “thanks” coach Lombardi -for setting the record straight! 

Friday, February 18, 2011

How an Arts Program can be a Beacon of Hope

Picture of the choir at their annual concert at the Chan Centre, UBC

I shake my head when I hear about schools cutting or cancelling art and/or music programs to balance budgets.  When I consider the enduring and transformational impact that our visual and performing arts programs have on our students, to ever consider downsizing or cancelling them would be catastrophic.
While our school has a flourishing programs in the performing, visual (art, photography and video) and speech arts, the lens by which I wish to animate the transformational nature of our arts program is through our choral music program. 
Over the years the school’s choir has performed in countless concerts spanning the globe.  They have left many audiences in tears and many more speechless.  A few people have been moved to verbalize their feelings in wonderful testimonials.  Some of my favorites include: 
During the choir’s 2007 visit to Chicago, they performed at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Melrose Park.  After the concert, long time parishioner, lovingly known as “Uncle Jimmy”, grabbed me, and in his big Italian American accent, stated: “In over 50 years at this parish,  my ears have never heard such beautiful music.”   
In 2009, while touring in Cuba and singing in  the Chiesa del Carmen Cathedral, a local woman approached me, after hearing the choir,  clutching her chest and, in Spanish, stated – “I don’t speak English – but I want to tell you -  my heart is filled with love” –as the tears poured down her face.

On that same Cuban tour I met Professor Jorge Pacheco, Artistic Director of Music for Cuban Television and former soldier in the Cuban Revolution who fought in the Bay of Pigs invasion.  While sitting listening to our choir, he leaned over and whispered “You know, real power is not at the end of gun but rather in the beauty of the arts.” 

These are wonderful and inspiring testimonies from those outside the choir.  But what do the students think?  What does choral music and singing choir mean  to them?
I recently asked members of the choir to tell me about their choral experience.  Here is what a few told me:
  • “The choir has allowed me to express the vulnerability of the human condition alongside my classmates”
  • “Being here has grown my belief in the certainty that there is something bigger – something extraordinary-living in each of us.”
  • “Choral music is everyone’s answer put to one.”
  • Choir has taught me to love, respect and give back to people who need love the most.”
Hearing these students articulate these powerful and insightful thoughts caused me to do some deep thinking about the power of our choral program and indeed our arts programs in general.     

Perhaps, at the end of the day (without sounding too melodramatic) - after all the tears, accolades, and testimonials, the trans-formative power of the arts lies in the fact that they give our students a sense of hope in themselves, each other and their fellow human.  In a world full of conflict, destruction and death, their efforts stirs in them (and us who experience their creative genius) a sense of hope.

In his book, “Have a Little Faith”, Mitch Albom, speaks of the importance of hope in our lives when he writes:
“In the beginning, there was a question.  In end, the question gets answered.  God sings, we hum along and there are many melodies, but it’s all one song – one same wonderful, human song.  I am in love with hope.”
We are blessed to have a vibrant arts program at our school which nourishes the hearts of students and audiences with power of hope.  

I would like to dedicate this post to all the wonderful arts teachers who bring out the best in our students

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Every Student, All the Time: 100% Gradation Rates

For the past 15 years our school has had a 100% graduation rate. I am extremely proud of our students and teachers for making this happen.    I have been asked, on several occasions, how the school has come to achieve this. In part, the answer lies within the culture and tradition of “hard work” that the community has embraced. One of my favorite school archives is a newspaper advertisement from 1932 which declares: “St. Patrick School….built and equipped without debt by the pennies of the working class."  However, to attribute this successful graduation rate only to “hard work” would be grossly inadequate. 

A deeper look would show that the school has adopted some systemic (rooted in best educational practice) and strategic initiatives that have enabled the success of all our students. Before I list a few of these initiatives, let tell you some important information about our school and community:

We are a Catholic high school of 500 students. Enrollment into the school is entirely based on belonging to a Catholic denomination (we also enroll and small percentage of non-Catholic students). The school does not administer an “entrance exam” nor does it screen for academic ability. Recent demographic information provided by Statistic Canada puts the average wage of families in our catchment at $58,000 annually. Further demographic data indicates that over 50% of parent community does not have English as their first language.

Now on to a summary of our systems and strategies:

Pyramid of Intervention
We work hard to answer the question: “What happens when a student is not learning”. This model of school improvement is rooted in the PLC model popularized by Richard Dufour and others. (Response to Intervention  is another example). As a school community we constantly adjust our model to better meet our needs (See diagram) and keep all stakeholders focused on our task.  see “Whatever it Takes: How Professional Learning  „
Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn” (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker & Karhanek)

Data Collection
Once students enroll in our school we collect as much student data as possible, through test scores, teacher observations and parent feedback. Once analyzed and collated, the findings are shared with teachers and parents so that appropriate, classroom level interventions can be implemented for the students. Recently, given our demographics, the school has embarked on piloting a literacy program that will give us more data on the specific literacy skills of our students and provide us with more focused interventions.

Grading Practices
Over the past four years the school has amended its assessment and grading practices. Some of these reforms have include an “open grade book policy” where terms are no longer averaged (acknowledging that learning is process over time), the elimination of teachers giving indiscriminate zero’s for incomplete work (students must now do the work!). Ken O’Connor and Doug Reeves are two of my favorite researchers in this area. Although I see myself as a passionate advocate for grading reform in schools, another BC educator (principal) you may want to follow is Cale Birke (@birklearns). You’ll love his passion on this topic.

Teacher Interventions:
We begin with the premise that a student’s success in the classroom begins and ends with the quality of instruction in that class. No grading policy, system of intervention, timetable has a bigger impact on student success than the quality instruction in the classroom.

With this premise in mind, the school is constantly looking for ways to support teachers in their learning and delivery of best practice. Some of the teaching and learning supports we provide for our teachers include:

a. Restructuring of staff meeting format and rationale. Teams of teachers now meet every Wednesday morning to address goals related to student learning (some great work is being accomplished in these learning teams).

b. Providing teachers with easily accessible and informative communication tools (beyond report cards) to communicate with parents and students. Constant (every 3-4 week communication is expected on students who are at risk (No surprises here!)

c. Academic Advisors for each grade level provide another level of support for students, teachers and parents when dealing with academic issues.

d. Teacher/Department Tutorials. Each department in school hosts weekly tutorial sessions for students who require extra-help in content specific areas.

e. Peer Tutors. This is essentially the idea of “students helping students” in scheduled tutoring sessions, supervised by a teacher. This has proven to be highly successful over the years!

f. Homework Club. This intervention has been instituted to address students who have not responded to teacher interventions related to work habits. This is moderated and regulated by the school’s administration. Teachers nominate students to the administration only after they can demonstrate that they have tried some interventions themselves. The obvious caution with this intervention is that students who are sent to homework club are there only to address work habit issues. Students with learning difficulties are redirected back to the teacher for extra-tutorials or to the Learning Assistance Centre if required. This has been effective, but does require careful attention and moderating. (We learned the hard way, and in many ways are still figuring it out!)

Other school wide support systems:

Weekly & Monthly Student Services Meetings
Teachers, advisors, counselor and administrators meet on a regular basis to address
 issues related to students who are not learning.  Students are identified and interventions implemented.  

New Timetable
Students lead busy lives. Like most schools, our school is a busy place. In acknowledging this, the school has moved to a timetable that allows for a daily 30 minute block of supervised “study time” for students. This is an opportunity for students to get their work done (or at least get a good start on it) before they go home.

Careful scheduling of students
All scheduling of students is closely monitored by the school's administration, with the assistance of the academic advisors and cooperation to students and parents. Our goal is to schedule students for success (graduation  and beyond).   We frequently need to have meaningful conversations with students and parents about “choosing courses for success”.  Our staff spends a lot of time ensuring that schedules reflect a balance between students' needs, strengths and future dreams! Doug Reeves, in his book Leading Change quotes and principal from Indiana on this topic: “students can make a lot of choices, but we won’t let them choose to fail”. (Reeves, Leading Change in Your School, 2009)

A Culture of Commitment
It is inspiring to work in a culture where all the adults (teaching staff, support staff, office staff, etc.) have an unwavering commitment to ensuring that all students succeed. This level of commitment has spilled over and permeated the psyche of our students. The students accept as truth, that they will graduate from high school.

I have listed some of the factors which contribute to our success as a school. However, every journey is different. Each student will take a different path. Some will find it easier than others. The constant will be the level of commitment and care from the adults in their lives!

An example from few years ago illustrates this well:

It’s the morning of the Grade 12 English Provincial Exam. The school received a call from a desperate mother in tears over the fact that her Grade 12 daughter was unwilling to come to school to write her exam. For various reasons the student was choosing to fail. Given our relationship with the family we decided to take the extraordinary step and go to the home. My two Vice Principals arrived at the home to a grateful mother and a defiant child. After careful mediation and lots of tears, the VP’s were successful in persuading the student to come to school. Once at school, the student decided to sit in the exam but not write a thing. She failed English 12 and thus did not graduate in June.

At initial glance, this story might be perceived as a failure (the student didn't graduate) however it does serve to illustrate this culture of commitment  and "going the extra mile" that I mention above.  (It also speaks to  the importance of having trusting and authentic relationship with parents and families - but that's another post). 

The story does have happy ending in relation to the student graduating  - she chose, in August, to write her exam. She passed and graduated. 

 I am not sure what motivated her to go back and write. Regardless, on that June morning the student learned that she had a school community that was committed to her well-being and academic success!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Looking for feedback: Assessment & Grading Guide

The following is a condensed version of our school's assessment, evaluation and grading guide.

We have been working with the teachers, for the past five years,  to address issues of  best practice in assessment and grading.  The following guide is a culmination of this work and shift in practice amongst our teachers.

Specific Policies

  1. Purpose of Assessment

Assessment serves a variety of purposes throughout the learning process from start to finish. Assessment practices should be employed in order to pre-assess, direct instruction, identify gaps in understanding and to guide further learning. Formative assessments, designed to guide the learning process will be offered in advance of major summative assessments. 

      2.  Determination of grades

When determining grades, teachers need to account for the following:

a)      Missed assessments: When a student misses a particular assignment or test, a mark of I (incomplete) will be assigned and an alternative plan devised to provide evidence of mastery (a mark of zero should not be recorded and averaged into the grade). If a student has missed a number of significant assessments, the teacher may be unable to accurately assess the student’s performance and should record a grade of I (insufficient evidence available) on the report.

b)      Incongruent assessments: Where a significant disparity or anomaly in student performance over time is evident, a interventions by teacher need to be implemented to address the gap in understanding.  This will allow for another assessment to confirm the student’s mastery of the outcomes in question. 

c)      Weighting performance over time: Teachers are to ensure that a student’s grade accurately reflects his/her best understanding of particular outcomes. Where a student has demonstrated significant improvement in terms of mastery of particular outcomes through the year, the more recent evidence should be emphasized in the determination of the grade. This eliminates the need to “average” marks in any calculation.

           3..    Work Habits

We expect that all students will put forth their best.  Work Habit skills will be reported on based on our work habits rubric.  When necessary, teachers should provide anecdotal comments regarding specific work habits. 

4.     Attendance

Attending class in a timely, regular fashion is the shared responsibility of the student and parents and an expectation of the school. Regular attendance demonstrates commitment to learning in a community and prepares students for higher learning and for life.  When frequent absences lead to an insufficient amount of assessment evidence, a mark of “I” will be assigned.

5.   Late or incomplete student work

Late or incomplete work is often symptomatic of other, more serious issues for student learning.  Teachers should show compassion in trying to identify the root causes. In most cases, the consequence of not completing an assignment will be completing the assignment.   

The consequence for late assignments will not be applied using mark penalties. Lateness will be reported on in the anecdotal/behavioral section of the report and carry other behavioural consequences as outlined below.

When an assignment is late or incomplete, at the discretion of the teacher and/or administrator, a student will be held responsible to:
a)      work with their teacher to create a timeline for completing the work and/or
b)      come in for extra help and/or
c)      work towards completing the assignment during their free time either before or after school or at lunch/recess and/or
d)     design an alternative assessment piece which demonstrates their mastery of learning outcomes.

In the absence of sufficient evidence of the attainment of learning outcomes due to a number of missed assessments, a grade of I or incomplete will be reported until such time as sufficient evidence is made available by the student.

               6.   Plagiarism and academic dishonesty

Using content and values appropriate for the grade in question, teachers at all grade levels will seek out opportunities to inform students about plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty

Academic dishonesty and plagiarism will be treated as a behavioral issue.  In some instances the student’s mark will be impacted. When an incident has been discovered;
a)                  the student may be required to re-submit the work in question in order to demonstrate mastery of the skills and content.
b)                  the format and timing of the submission will be at the discretion of the teacher and will likely result in a loss of discretionary time privileges for the student.
c)                  Teachers will communicate the incident to parents and an administrator

 Students who are found to have committed academic dishonesty may also be subject to sanctions outlined in our school agenda. 

 I look forward to your suggestions, comments and feedback

Many of these guidelines have been gleaned from the work of researchers and authors, including Ken O'Connor, Doug Reeves and Mike Schmoeker.  We have also reviewed a variety of guidelines from other schools.   (We would like to thank St. Michaels University School for sharing their policy with us!)