Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Need for More Play in School

As I kid I loved play. Countless hours were spent building forts in the woods, creating sand castles at the beach, riding bikes, playing Atari (then Nintendo, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, etc.) or just running around for no apparent reason. Kids love play and it is a central component of their social and emotional development.  Important qualities such as patience, compromise, creativity, focus, critical thinking, problem solving, determination, resilience, and resourcefulness, to name a few, are developed through play.  Not only are these qualities vital to success, but they also represent elements that cannot be tested.

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As much as I loved play I think I enjoy watching how it not only impacts, but also how important it is to my own children.  In many ways my kids engage in play in unique ways based on their personalities.  My son, Nick, is an avid gamer who loves Minecraft and the creative freedom it fosters. On many nights it is common to see him with his headset on collaborating and communicating with kids his age from across the country utilizing thought and strategy to create a product that matters. Like most children, he also has a passion for basketball, golf, Nerf gun battles, laser tag, going to the park, and of course playing with his sister. They love walking the neighborhood engaged in Pokemon Go. I love it when they come back and tell me how many kilometers they walked while having fun.

My daughter, Isabella, on the other hand is a ball of raw energy.  She is always on the go, running around the house and outside when the Texas heat is in check.  Like her brother, technology is a huge component of her play regime.  Many evenings after dinner she retreats to her room to play Roblox with her best friend, Brooke, who lives in New York. She will have a computer set up for the game and then stream in Brooke Live using Facetime on her iPad Mini. They then play the game together, but laugh and converse in real-time. She is also big on creating’s with her friends near and far. Outside of technology she is your typical kid when it comes to play, ranging from dolls, to stuffed animals, to a variety of aquatic games in the pool.

Play has a magical effect, at times, of taking away some of the stress and pressures of life. It is in these carefree moments that kids and adults develop and enhance certain skills that will play a huge role in personal and professional development.  I find myself reflecting on the seemingly endless positive impacts that play has on kids and yet it is being cut from schools across the world.  Ask any young kid what was their favorite part of the school day and they will respond in no specific order – recess, gym, or art.  

Our kids need and deserve more play, not less! Recess in particular is needed not just in our youngest grades, but also even through the middle and high school years.  Read about why high school should be more like kindergarten and the point becomes clearer. Play has to be valued in school and its integration should be a priority if student learning and achievement are the goal. Why you ask? Research has found that play develops students in four ways: physical, cognitive, social, and emotional.

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In order to create schools that work for kids a concerted effort has to be made to break up the monotony of formal learning that places a great deal of stress on students.  Structured and unstructured play should be integrated into every school schedule, regardless of the age group of the kids.  Below are a few ideas:

  • Add more recess (kids need it and the benefits are clear)
  • Integrate makerspaces 
  • Replace study halls with play options and open choice
  • Integrate games such as chess, checkers, Trivial Pursuit, and Xbox to common areas
  • Add time to lunch. With a full length lunch period at my school (48 minutes) students would regularly go outside and play, visit the makespace, or play video games thanks to our BYOD initiative.
  • Develop a play-based elective

These are just a few ideas to implement the power of play into the school day. Students should be excited to attend school and learn. By integrating more play we can begin to create a culture where more students want to learn. Once that is achieved the possibilities are endless.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Stop the Homework Insanity and Let Kids Be Kids

I have so many fond memories of my childhood.  Growing up in a relatively rural area of Northwestern New Jersey sure had its benefits.  As we returned home from school each day, my brothers and I would jump off the bus and diligently make our way about a half-mile back to our house. Once home we would peel off the backpacks, get changed, and play outside for the remainder of the day until dinner was ready. I can still remember my parents yelling into the great abyss as many times we were either deep in the woods or down by the local farm.  There was homework, but is was very manageable to the point that my mom had to remind me that we actually had some during the elementary and middle years.

When not off on our adventures in the deep woods, we would be riding bikes, playing with the dog, swimming in the pool, shooting hoops, or getting into some kind of trouble. Life sure was good and relatively stress free.  Things changed a bit once Atari and Nintendo took hold. Most of our time was still dedicated to outdoor play, but time was definitely allocated to playing video games on these technological wonders.  On some days we couldn’t wait to get home from school to play Asteroids, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Tecmo Bowl, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. 

As we grew older sports began to make up a great part of our afterschool activities. Outdoor activities and video games often took a backseat to baseball, soccer, football, swimming, and basketball practice.  Sports were such a huge part of our lives throughout the year.  Growing up in a rural area allowed my brothers and I to participate in many sports at a high level. Part of why I believe my childhood was so great was that there was a distinct balance between school and life.  From the time the bus dropped us off until when we hopped back on, the focus was on learning.  Once home, however, time was relatively sacred when it came to play and spending quality time with family and friends. 

The life of a child today has changed dramatically.  Play both in and out of school has become a distant memory for many kids across the world.  For reasons that make no sense to me, children are given obscene amounts of homework. Instead of coming home to unwind, play, and spend valuable time with family, kids are stressed out beyond belief as high-stakes homework has become the norm.  Why have we veered off in this direction? There is little research to support the impact of homework on achievement for students in grades kindergarten through seven.  When it is assigned it should be no more than 30 minutes. Well, ask any parent and they will tell you that the amount of time spent far exceeds this.

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I am not against homework.  As a child I had homework, but it was a manageable amount that did not negatively impact social and play time.  It was also not used in a high stakes way. I want both my children to reinforce what they have learned during the school day, but more importantly I want them to be kids.  During my tenure as principal my district delved into the research with our students from all grade levels and changed our homework practices. Homework was still assigned, but there were time limits for each grade and it could not be used to punish students academically.   

The reasons for this post are not to debate the many issues I have with homework and the lack of reliable research to support it’s use. There will always be two sides to this debate.  It should be noted though that in my line of work I am able to make a pretty compelling case against current homework practices. However, I think we have to take a hard and objective look at the impact it is having on our kids. Current homework practices are making students dislike school and learning.  This is a fact.
"If your homework practices make kids dislike school and/or learning that alone should tell you something has to change."
Recently I was at an event in my community and parents were lamenting about homework.  This really hit home as every night my wife battles with my kids over homework.   My daughter cries and throws a fit.  She sits in the car and does homework to and from cheer practice. That is her after school life in a nutshell. She completes homework for 35 minutes on the way to cheer. After 2-3 hours of cheer practice she then again works on homework for another 35 minutes on the ride home. Sometimes she has even more work once she gets home. My son just sits and stares back at us with an empty gaze.  Ask any parent or child about their feelings on homework these days and you are bound to get a negative response.

If you currently work in a school consider this. Regardless of your views on homework, please take the time to reflect on whether it is actually having a positive impact. If homework makes kids dislike school and/or learning it is obvious there is a problem.  Parents also need to be proactive.  So what can you do? Share this post with your child’s teacher, administrator, school, or district. Share in the comments section below why homework is not working for your child.  Engage in conversations about homework balance and meaningful assignments that reinforce learning in a timely fashion. Together we need to address the gorilla in the room (homework) if student learning and success are the ultimate goal.

Below are some more resources that can move the homework conversation forward.
It's time to stop the insanity for the sake of our kids.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

What's Hidden in You?

I really had quite the fixed mindset early on as a young school leader. Success was defined by how well I performed my daily routine.  In my opinion I worked hard, but really didn’t push myself outside my comfort zone.  The reason being that in my mind there were just certain things I couldn’t do…nor had to. I didn’t have the “talent”, pre-disposition, personality, or character to do certain things. Thus, I didn’t really pursue activities that might have made me a better school leader. I did what I had to do to get by, never giving any real thought to what I was truly capable of. 

Professional practice had been dictated to me or so I thought. What we are capable of is really a combination of our mindset and the support or feedback we get from others. Intrinsic motivation to become better and grow in ways like never before will be all some people need, but others need a bit more guidance. I think I fell in the latter category.  Our minds are often the greatest advisor that we face each day, thus it is important to constantly improve our intellectual bank and diversify our networks in order to help unlock hidden talents.

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For me, becoming a connected educator in early 2009 served as a catalyst for professional growth in ways that I could never have imagined. First and foremost, I improved and diversified my intellectual bank. As I developed and grew my Personal Learning Network (PLN) I learned how much I did not know. The resources, ideas, strategies, different points of view, support, and feedback that I received from people across the globe, many of which have now become good friends, pushed me to pursue transformative change. I don’t have to go into great detail on all the sustainable changes that were implemented over the course of five years as I have written extensively on the topic. 

The bottom line though is that the conversations and relationships that evolved thanks to a diversified network and enhanced intellectual bank unlocked leadership qualities hidden inside me. Critical conversations now occurred both face to face and virtually. My circle of trust extended beyond the brick and mortar walls of my building as I now had access to trusted colleagues who were willing to provide advice no matter when I needed it. This was the push I had constantly been seeking during my professional career and it ultimately motivated me well beyond what I thought I could do.

Through my diversified network I met Ken Royal, one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He pushed me to extend beyond the use of Twitter to share what was going on in my school through a blog. I was very resistant, as I did not consider myself a writer. The process of writing was always a struggle for me. Needless to say he motivated and coached me on the process of blogging. Now years later I have four published books and two more on the way in 2017. By no means am I a prolific writer in my opinion. For me, writing anything beyond 300 words is an accomplishment. One that I would have never realized if it had not been for the professional relationships I formed in online spaces.

Social media, Twitter and blogging in particular, had another unintended, positive consequence. Through the sharing of our work at New Milford High School I began to receive many invitations to present on our many evidence-based change initiatives. If I was afraid to write then I was terrified to speak in public. Prior to becoming connected I could never speak in public for more than five minutes unscripted. The more I was asked to present the better I became with little scripting. This had an immediate impact in my district as I become better at articulating key messages to my stakeholders. Little did I know how this change would carry me to an entirely new career.  I never realized I had a calling in public speaking and could never have imagined speaking to incredible educators across the globe. 

Doubt, leading to a lack of confidence, often clouds our true abilities.   Our minds are quick to revert back to safety mode when we are faced with a challenge or engaging in an innovative activity.  I hope my examples above illustrate that anything can be possible.  Once you are able to unlock what’s hidden inside you, you will be in a better position to help others unlock their hidden talents, skills, and passions. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Popular vs Effective

“Effective leadership is not about speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.” – Peter Drucker

There is always an innate desire to be popular. Chalk this up to human nature, right or wrong.  Our culture idolizes movie stars, musicians, and professional athletes. We also gravitate to those who are the most popular in their respective profession, sometimes for reasons that I will never understand.  The world basically stopped and mourned when Angelina Jolie announced that she was divorcing Brad Pitt.  Kim Kardashian, on a recent vacation to Mexico took over 6000 selfies and the masses ate it up.  In her case social media has only increased her popularity exponentially.  We can even take a look at social media numbers in general.  Individuals with large followings are often placed into the popularity column, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are effective at what they do.  

Popularity means different things to different people and unfortunately can have a negative impact on the change process. The popularity bug impacted me early in my career.  I really wasn't concerned much about this as a teacher, but during my first few years as an administrator it was definitely on my mind. My thought process made sense to me at least. I saw being popular with my staff as a way to overcompensate for my young age and in turn gain the respect of a veteran staff. Needless to say, all this did during those initial years was help to sustain the status quo. Nothing really changed and results were flat at best. 

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One of the most challenging aspects of education is the perception that popular teachers and administrators are also effective. Granted some definitely are, but in many cases popularity creates a layer that when peeled away the reality comes to light. The problem, however, lies in the fact that this layer is rarely peeled away. It becomes fixated to the point that these individuals become sacred cows and untouchable.  Naysayers and antagonists use popularity strategically as a way to mask their deficiencies. It is also used to build stakeholder support for all the wrong reasons. 

Leadership is about action. It is not a popularity contest. As leaders in our respective positions it is important to ensure popularity doesn’t get in the way of effectively meeting the needs of all learners, helping to promote and sustain a transformative school culture, or moving the education profession forward. We must be willing to make tough decisions and take on the resistance wherever it lies, knowing full well that these actions will diminish our popularity. Changes to grading, homework, instructional accountability, and professional learning will all start out as unpopular decisions. However, results in the form of improved learning outcomes and the ability to help schools change at scale carry more weight in the long term than popularity does. 

Popularity does not necessarily make you a good teacher, administrator, or leader in the field of education. Your actions that lead to tangible results are what truly matter. By focusing on the latter you will not only become more effective, but also pretty popular in the process. Encourage others to do the same.