Inspired by the Odyssey Initiative

Every January, as I step into a brand new year, I find it rewarding to think back to the previous year and consider things that touched my life and my work. Not unlike the Time ‘Person of the Year’ I find myself considering Subha’s ‘Experience of the Year’, and typically, there are many. There are the ups and downs, joys (our public school recently became an International Baccalaureate World School) and sorrows (a student, parent and staff member passed away last year while other kids battled life-threatening illnesses)… moments that knock us down, moments that help us bounce back and others that lift us up and bring us right back to the entrance to our school with our batteries recharged and our spirits energized. Each experience touched the little world of our school in important ways, helped us learn about each other and the important work we do for children, and sometimes brought us closer together as a school community. I have learned from every one of those experiences and grown a little stronger and more resilient. Here, I want to reflect on one experience that was unexpected, yet incredibly energizing and rewarding.

During the fall semester, a group of educators from the Odyssey Initiative, contacted me to ask about visiting my elementary school in Indiana. Three teachers, Michelle Healy, Brooke Peters and Todd Sutler were on an exciting journey, traveling to schools around the country to study practices that work before working on setting up their own school in Brooklyn, New York. They were accompanied by Nikki Heyman, who is filming their odyssey. I thought their project was wonderful and even before I met them, wished I was on that journey with them! Their mission and core beliefs were simple and insightful. They wanted to observe and document best practices, then adapt them to use in a school they plan to open open in a couple of years. I was eager to meet them.

They impressed me from the start. They had an agenda to maximize what they could accomplish in the few hours that they were at our school. They toured the building, visited a couple of classrooms to observe lessons, met with the teachers and interviewed them, and then met with me for an interview as well. They had a clear focus – like detectives following clues to solve mysteries (such as what constitutes good instruction). They reminded me of avid jigsaw puzzle junkies who can’t resist putting together pictures that look simple but are quite complex – pictures that come together as these puzzle enthusiasts consider nuances that will build the connections to lead them from part to whole. Some connections would be those Aha! moments, others would grow from careful reflection. Michelle, Brooke and Todd were doing this as they engaged with our school.

“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” — Don Williams, Jr., American Novelist and Poet

I’ve learned that the best teachers are terrific observers of kids and the learning process. They know where they are heading and what they are looking for. They can gauge what is going on, figure out what needs to be done next and shift gears as necessary as they reflect on, revise and refine what they are doing continuously. Perhaps you wondered why I used the term ‘solve mysteries’ above, when I referred to what constitutes good instruction. We know a lot today about good educational practices, but you see, knowing what to do and when to do it are two completely different things. We can have a lot of tools in our tool belt, but we need to use them at the right time and in the right context. It is important to have knowledge of sound instructional strategies and also critical to know when each should be pulled out and used. As such, teaching and reflecting are absolutely inseparable. Kids benefit when educators do this seamlessly. And for all that we talk about high stakes testing and accountability these days as though they are tough pills to swallow, all they are asking for is that educators be reflective practitioners. I’ve always believed that if we teach kids using best practices and teach them how to learn, the tests will take care of themselves. Using best practices however, is not simple. There are nuances to it that are tied to numerous dynamics. However, there are educators in schools who are keeping up with their own professional learning and making this happen day after day for kids.  Brooke, Michelle and Todd are visiting schools around the country, to document how this unfolds and thankfully, not keeping the knowledge to themselves. They are sharing it with the larger educational community. They plan to open a school in 2014, yet the journey is where they are gathering the seeds to sow for their school.

Their visit was interesting. They knew what they wanted to do, they came in with an organized agenda of what they wanted to see, and had thoughtfully constructed questions to make their respondents reflect on the beliefs that drive actions. When they left, I felt like I had been grilled! But, I had learned a little more about my school through their eyes and more about my role as a principal. They had asked some tough and interesting questions. I am someone who likes to let ideas marinade in my head over time. Yes, on a daily basis, I make decisions quickly based on beliefs that ground my work, however responding to questions is a different matter. How does one reflect on the run, one question after another? They had made me dig a little deeper into the why’s  of my work, and the wheels were turning in my head long after they left. Some weeks later, I read the first post they had written about their visit, describing a lesson they had observed in one of our classrooms. It was a beautiful piece – a description of a work of art revealed through the eyes of the viewer – they had translated an hour-long snapshot of the teacher’s craft and revealed aspects that had made it a compelling and meaningful lesson. They showed how the lesson had hooked students into the process of learning.

I’ve always believed in the power of writing as an amazing vehicle to communicate ideas. This team of educators does a masterful job of showcasing their talent through the writing in their blog posts on the Odyssey Initiative’s website – posts that not only document effective instructional practices but are made stronger because of the reflections of the authors.  Their main page showcases featured articles and video clips. To experience their journey, click on the map on their main website and then scroll down to travel with them from one state to the next, from school to school, and educator to educator – to read well-written descriptions and view video clips from their journey. You will be inspired by the teachers and school leaders they’ve met, learn from their experiences, and more importantly (as one of my teachers commented) experience a validation of your beliefs about the best in schooling. You will head back to work with your batteries recharged (as mine are again just from writing this post).

The Odyssey Initiative’s visit was, for me, the highlight of 2012. I must admit, I wish I could have taken a year to travel with them and learn about education in the best way possible, by visiting schools and watching solid teaching and learning in action. On the other hand, their visit became memorable because they impressed me in the few hours I met them as educators who had a sense of purpose about their journey. They were not just visiting schools. They were inquiring into important aspects of schools – how they work and run for kids – in a meaningful and structured manner. They knew what they were looking for and had excellent questions. They were on a journey of learning – after all, learning never ends. They write beautifully about the teaching they have observed and a field I love. Their enthusiasm is infectious and energizing. They reinforced my belief in the power of educators to make a difference – not just for children but for our profession. As much as I look forward to learning about the school they plan to open, I believe they have at least a book or more they can write about their journey. And while a book might not be ready as yet, their website is. I hope you will visit and join them on their journey. I am confident you’ll be hooked! It’s worth going back again and again — I know I will do this to vicariously join them in their travels.

Bon voyage, Michelle, Brooke, Todd and Nikki! 

Y buena suerte…


Focus on Excellence to Level the Playing Field

Inspired by 'Castle and Sun' by Paul Klee.

Last week, the stage leveled the playing field for a diverse group of students. As fifth graders performed a jazz musical, you could see the diversity of my school in the faces on the stage but you would not have been able to tell the kids apart in terms of who came from a background with access to resources and who did not. The audience packed in our ‘auditorium’ (our gym and cafeteria) watched an amazing performance unfold before their eyes.

I’ve been to so many enjoyable performances by kids. Their cuteness and joy typically moves the audience and we often leave with a happy feeling. However, there was something different about this musical. From the time the spotlights were turned on until the last child had taken a bow, I could see in the faces of our audience and hear in their applause and cheers their joy and amazement at the quality of the performance they were witnessing. A hundred and twenty five students had trained for this day. They sang in unison and in groups. They narrated pieces highlighting the history of jazz and performed vocal and instrumental solos. Several parents and grandparents spoke to me after the show to say how impressed they were with the talent they had seen on the stage. I returned home late that night,  with a feeling of exhilaration and exhaustion. I was tired when I woke up the next morning but perked up quickly – I was still on a high after the performance and that feeling took me through the hectic last day of school before spring break.

I knew the stories of several kids on the stage – their joys and struggles, their successes and challenges, and experiences ranging from rich and varied to painfully difficult. My school is a fascinating place. Our students come from different ethnic groups and speak many different languages. They come from different parts of the world and several are in the U.S. as refugees. Our socioeconomic demographics are just as varied – we have students from wealthy and middle class homes as well as a large number of children who experience the trials of poverty on a daily basis. We have an amazingly high level of parent involvement for an urban school – it is not unusual to see 60-100 parents at PTO general meetings. Our parents volunteer their talent and time for a wide range of activities and have big hearts. They are ready and willing to support families in need and their generosity and support is seen throughout the year. With each song that night, the stories of our students flashed through my mind, making their performance all the more beautiful and touching. It was a wonderfully polished performance – one could tell that a lot of time, effort and practice had gone into it.

Can you tell that I haven’t stopped thinking about this experience? It holds bigger meaning for me in the work I do because there’s a message in it – that when we set the bar high for kids, and support them, they can step up and excel regardless of their background and experiences. Yes, the stage did level the playing field, and it reinforced my belief about a focus on quality and excellence.

“Celebrate what you’ve accomplished, but raise the bar a little higher each time you succeed.” ~ Mia Hamm

Excellence is not about perfection. You know, we often talk about children and adults being perfectionists – they are ‘fussy’ about the little details and want to put their best foot forward – and sometimes we place the word ‘perfectionist’ within a negative context as if it were tied to anxiety and stress. Frankly, I love the notion that people want to excel and so I don’t really have a problem with the term ‘perfectionist’. I will readily add that I don’t have a problem with the word ‘overachiever’ either, as some do. It’s about ‘going the extra mile’ and we don’t think of that phrase in a negative context! I have noticed that we celebrate excellence in the sports arena when kids have to practice for long hours, and we don’t mind when coaches are ‘tough’ on kids and ‘push them’. However, when it comes to academics, I have heard people commenting about parents ‘pushing’ their kids as though it were just short of abuse and teachers seen as tough if they ask students to put in extra effort, or redo their work. Athletes are generally celebrated here and nerds and geeks looked at as if they are weird. I don’t get it! However, at some point, things do even out. There comes a time when the nerds, geeks, athletes and others find a niche that works for them but things are tough for many until then.

While I like the notion of striving for perfection, I want to focus on excellence here. Perfection somehow sounds finite – like you’re done with the learning and growing part of whatever you are doing. Excellence is a term that paints the image of always learning and growing – whether you are an amateur artist or a Monet. I believe striving for excellence is something we should do across the board – after all, even the student with straight A’s will have something he/she can work to improve.

“Each honest calling, each walk of life, has its own elite, its own aristocracy based on excellence of performance.” ~ James Bryant Conant

We have to prepare our students to hold their own in any arena. Regardless of the complexity of the job or the salary it pays, quality of work is important. If children grow up knowing that putting their best foot forward is a worthy aim not just for their careers but even just for themselves, they will be prepared to stretch themselves. There are those who look at the circumstances that some of my students come from and believe they will not be able to break out of the things that bind them. And, there are those who disagree with this notion vehemently. I belong to the latter group. I believe that if we prepare students with a focus on giving them a taste of excellence, they will be prepared to break the glass ceilings that lie ahead of them.

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” ~ Steve Jobs

The musical unfolded in an environment where excellence was expected. My music teacher literally set the stage for this. We purchased new risers given his vision for the things he wanted to accomplish. He borrowed spotlights from another school and fussed over the music system to get the old equipment to do its best. He climbed up on a ladder, hung lights around the stage (since we do not have curtains), and proudly called us to view his efforts. He turned a small stage in a fifty-two year old school into a place where our kids were proud to perform. On the day of the performance, he personally worked to arrange all the folding chairs and cafeteria benches meticulously, to create paths for his performers. He has big dreams for what more he would like us to do in the future, and I kid around with him saying he’s a very expensive teacher! We’re working together to budget for the things we want to improve, a little at a time, over the next five years – curtains, a better sound system, etc.

His colleagues jumped in to support him. The art teacher worked with fifth graders to paint a wonderful backdrop (part of which you see adorning this post), based on ‘Castle and Sun’ a painting by the artist, Paul Klee, and several parents helped him hang it above the risers, working late into the night a couple of weeks before the big day! It was great to see our students looking at it in awe once it was up. Wow! Would they really be performing in front of it? It made the upcoming performance more real for them and the rehearsals more meaningful.

Late buses provided by our district allowed all the students to stay back after school once a week over the last month, to rehearse the musical. The benefit of this feature is incredible in leveling the playing field – kids whose parents cannot come to pick them up due to work, or lack of transportation, still get to participate in after-school tutoring and activities and then get a ride home. Our fifth grade teachers gave the music teacher more time with the students and stayed after school to assist with rehearsals. No one had asked them to do this. They worked with the media specialist and (our PTO-funded) computer lab assistant to expand the scope of the project by exposing students to the history of jazz. Our fifth graders studied jazz artists and created simulations of Facebook pages for each artist, which were displayed in the auditorium.

Students auditioned individually for solo parts as narrators, singers, instrumentalists or dancers. One child, an amazing dancer, paired up with a peer who volunteered to dance with her. The two of them went online to see how other people had choreographed dances, and then learned the steps on their own. Their performance on the stage as their peers sang a jazz classic was outstanding – made all the more impressive because when given the opportunity, they had pushed themselves to present a quality performance.

“What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.” ~ Samuel Johnson

Through it all, the music teacher prepared them to put on a quality performance. He played videos of other musicals to give the children a picture of what they would be doing – many had never seen or participated in a musical before. He introduced the songs to them early in the fall semester while also working on other music standards he was responsible for teaching. He taught them the dances once they had learned the songs. He had them repeat lines to practice small details they could improve. He exposed them to the language and vocabulary of music. He gave them constructive feedback and lots of practice. They could see that they were improving from one rehearsal to the next. I learned that he had given each teacher a CD with the songs by the original artists. Apparently the kids asked to listen to the music during their writing time, and at other times each week, as background music while they worked! As the program drew near, it was clear to see the pride the kids had taken in their efforts, and the joy they felt. It warmed my heart to hear that they listened respectfully to the children performing the solos, and moved to the music when others were performing. I had only seen snippets of each rehearsal and was away at a meeting on the morning of the big show when they performed for the other students in our school. Teachers from kindergarten to fourth grade reported that their kids had said they couldn’t wait to be in fifth grade!

“It’s not necessarily the amount of time you spend at practice that counts; it’s what you put into the practice.” ~ Eric Lindros

Yes, this performance leveled the playing field because it demanded excellence from all the participants – not just some of them. Everyone had a role, and everyone was clear about what they needed to do to make the musical unfold. A team effort helped maintain the focus on quality, while enriching the experiences of the children beyond just singing and dancing, as they learned of the history behind the music they were going to perform. This focus on excellence built a sense of pride – not just among the students, but within our staff and families as well – for all that is possible when people come together with a focus on quality. I hope the kids remember the feeling of pride they had when they were on the stage. Someone remarked on the quality of the performance and said to me, “I didn’t think they had it in them. It was an awesome performance.” Yes, when we think of the stories of  our kids’ lives, when we see their struggles and lack of motivation, when we feel like we’ve done so much and they still haven’t ‘got it’, when we feel discouraged because of the mountains our kids have to climb to break through the obstacles that stand in their way, when we realize we have no control over the obstacles they face, it is also true that what happened in this musical can happen in other arenas as well.

“Nothing builds self-esteem and self-confidence like accomplishment.” ~ Thomas Carlyle

Here are some of the ingredients that I think helped us get there and can be translated to other things we teach in our schools:

  • Engaging kids in the material they have to learn. That requires us educators to be well-versed in the content ourselves and demonstrate enthusiasm for the material in well-crafted lessons that hook kids in. It’s not about making everything fun but really about making the learning meaningful.
  • Giving them the opportunity and support to master the material. A mentor said something that has stayed with me since the beginning of my career, “If they haven’t learned it, the problem lies not with my students, but with me for I haven’t found a way (that works) to teach it to them.” This attitude keeps our belief in the capacity of students to learn alive and challenges us to do our best as educators.
  • Showing them what quality work looks like, supporting them with strategies and tools to make it happen and holding them accountable. When we are asked to do something, even adults benefit from having a picture of what the finished product should look like, so why don’t we share exemplars with kids on a regular basis? Professors in colleges set expectations for student work, and so do employers. If we prepare kids to produce quality work, they will be ready for what is expected of them when they begin their careers. I feel frustrated when we accept work from kids where they’ve doodled on the pages they submit, or turned in their work on crumpled sheets of paper. I want us to change our expectations when I see us accepting poor quality work from kids simply because ‘they put in effort’. Why would any child take pride in such work? We talk a lot about having high expectations of kids and raising the bar, but we often settle for work that is of poor quality giving the impression that we do not feel the kids are capable of more. Yes, there are teachers who do all that I am suggesting should be a norm in our schools – and in their classes, kids rise to the occasion because they know that the teacher is expecting them to do their best.
  • Focusing on refining small details. Polishing little details allows kids to tackle the notion of quality in manageable chunks. Over time, sufficient practice with the small details can help students figure out how to improve just about anything they choose to do. After all, isn’t the biggest role of schools to give students the tools to learn how to learn? Putting them in control of their own learning and showing them that quality work is not out of their reach is an important goal for schools.
  • Caring and building relationships. This should be an important element in every school community. It’s one of my Three R’s and the foundation for excellence. Why would we take pride in doing anything if there aren’t relationships in place? I’m not referring to doing things for others. It’s more about doing things with others. Our team came together to help champion the kids. The musical could not have been accomplished by one person alone. It would not have worked if people had done things half-heartedly, or been ‘forced’ to participate. When we have relationships with colleagues and students, we want everyone to succeed and we work jointly to make that happen. It’s an important part of the culture of a school or for any organization. It’s about the people with whom we spend more time on work days than we do with our own families.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment to improve the world.” ~ Anne Frank

Last year, I talked to my team about showcasing the talent of our students. At that time I didn’t know much about which kid played the piano or sang, who played tennis, etc. other than what kids had shared during conversations. I asked them to help us display the talent that I knew existed in our school of almost 750 kids. They rose to the request and pulled it off so beautifully! Our school has always valued the talent of students – and this time we set a new bar for ourselves. I’ll always remember this musical as a hallmark of what our school stands for – a celebration of excellence! Back to those stories… when we take the time to focus on quality work, when we teach kids how to excel at what they do, we do level the playing field. If we do this, it does not matter what a child’s ethnicity or socioeconomic background is, because our students will be equipped with an important trait – confidence in their own capacity to stretch themselves, and strive for excellence in whatever they may do. It’s the best gift we can give them!

“My philosophy is that not only are you responsible for your life, but doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.” ~ Oprah Winfrey