Friday, January 29, 2016

Tips for attending Educon

Conference in session? At Educon, yes! Photo by Adam Provost, 2013

I'm been very lucky over the years to attend the Educon conference in Philly at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA). This, if memory serves, is my 7th... or 8th... ; )

If you're new, or even if you're a veteran to Educon, here's a few tips that might help you.

Educon Account
Create an account and toss up a profile if you're game. It'll help you connect and meet people. I'd encourage you to check out the profiles of others as well. Many contain links to their work out and about... which leads to some very inspiring stuff.

It's January Philly weather
It's January Philly weather and... Educon never struck me as a 'dress up' conference! If you're walking about Philly (which I'd recommend doing), dress for it or face the consequences of your decision ; )

Take a school tour with SLA students on Friday
Dive in and take a student led tour. Talk with students and parents from the school and visit classes. Do a lot of listening and start soaking in all the things you see.

Talk with the SLA teachers on Friday
The teachers at SLA are collaborators.  I've shared resources with these great folks over the years and have asked for many things from them. They always do their best to help. They are well versed in inquiry and project based ed, empowering student voice, and have great resources and insights.

Don't miss the Friday night panel discussion... and reception
Great speakers explore the conference theme of the year via sharing their experiences and insights. Dr Frederic Bertley from the Franklin Institute is the emcee and does a great job threading things together. The reception after mixes everyone including panel speakers together. Grab some refreshments and mix it up with attendees.

A school as an international conference site
Educon isn't a 'resort' conference. It's a gritty school building and amidst all it's imperfections you can see the reflections of the work they do there. The facility isn't holding them back. Core Value posters, grade level themes, student art curation, and creativity are all on display. SLA is a 'student space' school, a collaborative space. The classrooms and hallways are utilized toward these collaborative goals. They paint, decorate and keep the space flexible. If it's still there this year, try to get a pic of the vending machine that's been commandeered to sell student writing! I always look forward to seeing what's new.

Who's Coming
Check out the Who's Coming Page on the conf website and see who's attending. Those folks who inspire you on Twitter and in and blogs just might be at Educon. Introduce yourself, you know, in person! Find people, shake their hand and let them know how valuable their work is to you.

Check the Meetups Page on the main conf site
You never know what meetups might be inspiring. Give it a look as the conf goes on too. People get inspired and add things as the event unfolds.

Get ready... #Educon is a social media hurricane
The #educon hashtag usually rockets up the charts in the Twittersphere to become one of the most popular in the world over the duration of the conference.

During the panel discussion on Friday and throughout both conference days you'll see people crushing inspiration and insights into Twitter. My advice is to dive in and participate. #educon one of the best social media backchannel discussions in education going. The resources people post throughout the conference and afterward via reflective posts will provide you with ton of great material.

Take the opportunity via the #educon hashtag to follow new people on Twitter... and then try to meet them in person. #educon has expanded my PLN more than I could have hoped for over the years.

Take some time to like and share other people's posts that resonate with you. It all helps the conversations grow.

Core Values and Grade level Themes. It's all on the wall at SLA. Picture from the Educon Flickr collaboration

Get to know the school systems at SLA
SLA has a hybrid block schedule, their advisory program rocks, they live by core values and grade level themes, and they dedicate time to meaningful PD time for teachers via 1/2 day combined with student Capstone projects. Other schools would do well to learn how much positive motion that short list can bring to education. Dig deep and learn what the elegance of simplicity and the hard work behind it are accomplishing.

Students and adults in the school are truly empowered. There are endless examples of this in their system. 

A bit more about advisory...
If you have a chance, dive deeper into how SLA handles advisory. It's really, no joke, the core of the school. Chris Lehmann says often, "we teach students, not subjects."

Not Your Typical Sit and Git Conference (link to 2013 Edutopia Article on Educon)
Each session at Educon holds true to it's stated mission on the home page... Educon is about conversations.  Expect presenters to facilitate a conversations rather than 'present.' It's powerful beyond measure because it builds your thinking in many directions and you build off collective knowledge. The conference is built on everything the school does itself day to day via inquiry and project based education.

Look over the Conversations before hand and map out some ideas of what you want to attend. Likely you'll have a difficult time picking what you want to attend... and that's actually a great problem to have!

Don't be afraid to move around if something isn't resonating with you... or you want to take in two sessions of interest.

Educon has always been a place to unpack ideas on equality, white privilege and social justice. We need to explore these issues openly, frequently, and with kids. Each year the discussions grow and build on these fronts at the conference and I'd encourage you to dive in. I gain each year from people leading these conversations at Educon and it helps me in immeasurable ways. A few names to watch for: @RusulAlrubail, @TheJLV@mdawriter@xianb8. I'm very grateful for their work and resolve to bring this discussion forward. Check out their work and start reading in the #educolor movement. A movement, not a moment.

The #educon hashtag goes on, and on, and...
For weeks after Educon people will be tossing up reflective posts online. It's a great chance to learn more about what's going on in other schools, finding people with like interests and recharging your batteries further. tThis conference will help you find strategies to make meaningful shifts in a small and large scale personally or systemically. Plus... it's a great way to get insight into sessions you didn't attend!

Explore some Philly while you're here
Cheesesteaks, the Liberty Bell, Congress Hall, and Reading Terminal Market (just to name a few) are all at your fingertips. Like any large city, there's some incredible food here, art, and museums. Use the Yelp app, check websites for 'things to do in Philadelphia,' and do have a chat with the students who are in the EduConcierge role at the school... they've never steered me wrong.

I'd encourage you to jot down your reflections from the conf on a blog during or after it's done and share it with others who follow online and / or attended. Start writing again if you haven't. It'll help you unpack and grow.

So there it is, a few quick tips.

As usual, I can't wait see some new and familiar faces and get inspired. I come to Educon to recharge my batteries. Hasn't failed me yet.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The 'Checklist' syndrome in schools

'Walk to Freedom, Detroit Michigan. Image courtesy of Flickr Commons.

I received an 'advisory curriculum' once when I was a teacher.  "There are a lot of important issues to cover and advisory is the best place to do it" I was told.

Advisory at that time, so you know, was 20 minutes twice a week. Most agreed the time slot was ineffective but over multiple years the time was never adjusted rather reengineered over and over again.

I started flipping through the binder.

There was a calendar of 'suggestions.' One immediately stood out.

The Friday before the Martin Luther King Jr holiday I was asked to "play the famous I Have a Dream speech from Martin Luther King, Jr. in your advisory." Summarizing, it said 'We'd like to have a campus wide discussion on MLK .'

Functionally, with students coming into the room and preparing to leave Advisory was more like 15 minutes you actually had 'with' students. King's full speech is longer than 15 minutes. So... choose what to cover. Ok.

I kept looking though the binder. After the 'MLK Jr advisory' another unrelated topic was on the agenda. And another the next time. And another... and so on.

So... play the video clip or close to it and off you go. The 'discussion' part was left out.

I got to thinking of that 'advisory checklist' again when I read a great article called 'Teaching MLKs life --- The Man, Not the Myth' from Melinda D. Anderson aka @mdawriter.

MLK's life, mentors, work, goals, influence... is far more than just his 'I Have a Dream' speech. It's more than an item to check of a list' or to 'cover' and then get back to the curriculum.

I chose a different route for my advisory. I didn't play the video. Bandwidth was crushed in the school anyway because asking every teacher to stream a YouTube clip at the same time...

I asked the students in my advisory that day if they'd ever read King's full speech. Most hadn't so I encouraged them to do so some time in the near future. We spoke about 'advisory curriculum' briefly and the danger of discussing issues superficially. We started a conversation that day about social justice, white privilege and media coverage on these topics and discussed them on and off for the rest of the year... at the expense of nearly all the other subjects on the checklist.

I'll confess, most of the advisory time I spent getting to know students, finding out what was going on in their lives, helping them find connections in school and the community, and helping them learn to advocate for themselves and interests.

Of course... I was hesitant to jot this down and share. My citing MLK this time of year isn't just for effect or to forward my own agenda, as Jose Vilson eloquently points out.

I guess I'm just discouraged... because I still see so many one and done, curriculum coverage checklists in education.

King's work was far greater than one speech. His message was far more than something to check off a list in a one and done conversation.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The ill planned consequences of Act 46 in Vermont

Ask anyone in Vermont public schools and they'll give you an earful about Act 46 legislation currently brewing in Vermont.

The essence of the Act 46 plan makes sense: Merge small school districts into larger ones. There are a lot of benefits to that as spending in Vermont education continues to rise while enrollment declines. Merging some management costs and oversight has benefits.

But there's a troubling / devastating thread to Act 46 as well.

There are financial cap spending limits within Act 46 that are proving more than challenging aka crushing. With rising healthcare costs and obligations to pay salary increases contractually, Act 46 spending caps are wreaking havoc on school budgets, kids opportunities and those who support student learning. Especially for schools with renovation plans, where enrollment is actually increasing, or with very diverse populations that require large ELL programs. 

Many districts are trying to be as thoughtful as they can. Some  will succeed on some levels. But... I'm listening to schools throughout Vermont who are cutting to their contractual obligations and seniority. Valuable support programs for kids and families and creative programs are being cut. Many are preparing to RIF some excellent new teachers. Many places are casting aside plans they've made to upgrade and renovate learning spaces.

The legislation was well intended... but not well thought out.

There was some hope that Act 46 may be modified in time for schools to avoid dramatic cuts... but now it appears no changes will be made to Act 46 prior to school budgets being submitted. 

“Too often we look for rapid short-term solutions without realizing all the consequences, and I believe that’s what the spending caps turned out to be,” said Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden.

We can do better.

More people can be involved in planning more thoughtfully. These decisions can be made with school leaders rather than at them.

Decisions like this can be in line with school budget and planning cycles instead of making them reactive. They can be planned into contract negotiations.

Public education remains one of our most valuable resources.

We just have to remind legislators not to make these decisions in vacuums.


Friday, December 18, 2015

All good things... Bove's Restaurant in Burlington, Vermont

A classic Italian fare staple in Burlington, VT for 75 years, Bove's, is closing it's doors on December 23, 2015.

I'm still in denial I think.

I'd venture to guess I've eaten at Bove's or had their takeout over 200 times in my lifetime.

That's a lot of red garlic sauce... which is my go to dish.

Old school menu. Simple. Classic. Inexpensive. Staple.

Red garlic spaghetti with a small dish of extra sauce, small antipasto or 'lettuce with dressing'... pass the soft white bread and salted butter please.

One takeout order today... and more tomorrow. I'm bracing myself.

'All good things,' right?

But I do want to thank the folks at Bove's for their work and community support over 75 years... and helping this kid eat well. I loved every second of it.

Bove's is still going to do catering, right? Here's hoping that rich red garlic sauce will still be the same.

; )

Polarized opinions on global warming

I walked in recently on an intense group discussion about global warming.

One person in the group was very passionate that global warming is a complete hoax.

After about 15 minutes of debate, name calling and boastful statements...

Finally I said...

The real issue is that we need to treat the environment better. What we're doing now globally isn't sustainable and hasn't been for some time. We need far better, far more thoughtful discussions, expectations and action about how we use energy and how we treat the environment. Is there really any debate that we should increase our efforts to pollute the environment? The sooner we act the better.

Everyone nodded. The person who was convinced global warming is a hoax nodded and said...

"Yup. That's the truth. I agree."

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

How long is a 'student day' at your school?

How many schools have looked into the length of the 'typical student day'?

What if each teacher knew 'the actual length' of each students 'typical school day' over two weeks? 

Have students track results for two weeks and then share in each class with each teacher. It'll take time... but imagine the conversations and awareness it can conjure. Sharing with advisors or in advisory helps too... but often the results there are compartmentalized in that one arena.

Here's the guideline for students to track (and the one I used in my survey):
Two week grid: Monday - Sunday

Each day track:
  • Wakeup time
  • breakfast (yes or no, where?, time if applicable)
  • travel time to school
  • school day (hours)
  • extra-curricular (if applicable. Start time, duration)
  • travel time from school / extra-curricular
  • dinner (where, when, with who, how long)
  • work time (job, if applicable)
  • homework time
  • bed time

Is 'the total school day' building stress? Fatigue? Promoting bad sleep habits? Are excessive hours piling up over the long haul? How is it effecting families? How is it effecting / shaping personal habits?

Schools often speak of balance, community services, family life and making connections... but how is that lining up with demands?

Here's what I discovered about 'the length of the school day' from the pool of people I surveyed.

Refresher from the last post... I interviewed 60 people from three different schools to look into a number of topics. 
20 students in grades 9-12
20 adults who work in 9-12 education
20 parents of children in 9-12 education

The 'typical day'

In all cases, the typical 'first bell to last bell' school day, so to speak, lands at roughly 7 hours. Not bad. But... when you add up all the incidentals... like morning time, travel, extracurricular / work time and homework that's where things get interesting.

Wakey Wakey

Of the 20 students surveyed wake up times are as follows:
Before 630am: 20
Before 6am: 14
Before 530am: 11
Before 5am: 7
Before 430am: 4*

*6 of the 20 students reported having morning practices or work before school that required them to get up as early earlier than 430am.

With the typical school day starting at 8am, adding in the morning hours of prep, travel, or extra-curricular time is key. In this case... 7 hours in school is closer already to a nine hour day, again, on average.

Extra-Curricular... and on 'the whole clock'

Practice time averaged 1.5 hours roughly half the participants. The other half... 2 hours. All students reported having to get ready before practice so tack on a solid 15 minutes or more minutes to those totals. Add in travel time too, changing before and after and again... more than meets the eye. With travel included we're looking at roughly

With practices and incidentals we're looking at 12-13... average.

Extra-Curricular Drain

Add in A student I spoke with said this, and quite eloquently. 

"After I finish practice I typically have about two or three hours of homework. Last night I finished everything at 11(pm). I'm not sure what time it was exactly when I went to bed. Probably 1130(pm) I guess. I have to get up every morning at 515am.

The student went on to add something interesting, 

"I hardly ever see my parents or my brother or sister when we're in the house. If I'm home I'm pretty much in my room doing homework."

One other student added...

"When I come home from practice I'm dead! We had an hour in the weight room and then two hours of practice after that. We have a new coach and he's pushing us really hard. Last night I had about three hours of homework and I started at about 730(pm). My dad saved dinner for me and I ate in my room while I did homework. I was totally struggling to stay awake by that point and studying for an AP quiz really isn't that easy. I studied with two other teammates online and we did a good job knocking it out. By the time I got to my other homework I was going slower. 3 hours of homework turned into four and a half. That's pretty typical. It's not easy to crank out three hours of work when you start at 7 or 8 (pm). It's also not like this only happens once in awhile. I do this pretty much every night. By the time I get to sleep it's about midnight and I have to get up at 545am. Honestly I can't wait for high school to be over. I hate my schedule."

Doubling up on practice?
A number of the students and parents I spoke with were trying to understand 'double practices' on school days. Students in this case spoke about kids having 'morning practice' for 1.5 hours and also another in the afternoon from 1.5 to 2 hours. Adding up double practice hours and all the incidentals in the full student day... 16 to 18 hours total. Then there's fatigue in between. Students working through double practices reported extreme fatigue. Then discussions about injuries started as they talked about peers.

Sunday practice
A growing number of students reported having full or 'optional' practice on Sunday. That's a new one for me. In 23 years of coaching high school baseball I never had a practice on Sunday.

'Captain's Practices'
Some athletes discussed something even more dangerous. With pre-season limits placed on coaches, some were creating 'Captain's practices.' Captains, often high school juniors or seniors, were given detailed or loose instructions to run an extra optional session "for conditioning."

Just think about that for a minute. An extra practice, run by students, that focuses on conditioning? After a full practice? Dangerous stuff.

The drift here is important to note. A fascinating study could take place here on how these trends have evolved over the last 10 years.

Game day time on the overall clock
When you factor in extracurricular sports, parents reported that the typical home game consumes roughly four hours of time. Away games consume five or more hours depending on the distance. The student data actually comes in longer with 50% of away games consuming 5-6 hours of time and in a three cases 6 and as much as 10 hours for longer trips.

How it all adds up
Over a two week period I asked students to track how many hours a day all school activities consumed to include: travel to and from school and school related events, the school day itself, extra-curricular activity time, and homework. The results are pretty stunning.

Of the 20 students surveyed:

7 of 20 did not participate in extra-curricular activities. The average 'school day' over a two-week period for these students was 13-14 hours.

13 participated in extracurricular activities. The average school day for these students was 15 hours long. 11 of these 13 students reported that they had three or more days per week over 15 hours long.

Eleven. That's a lot to tow.

Again, add in time for dinner, family, work, or whatever else and it’s clear that teenagers struggle to find balance. And struggling to find sleep too.

So... a few questions to bring forward

  • Does your school have a homework policy or homework guidelines? What does an average homework load look like for students? Are there exceptions built in for 'extreme student days' (games, theater productions, trips, etc)? Remember, kids can't always plan what they have for work on a given day or in advance unless they are given the opportunity and taught how to do so.
  • How many hours in the day are sports or extra-curricular programs demanding? If your kids are being asked to do multiple practices per day... I'd start asking questions.
  • Many kids want to or 'have to' work. How many kids are working after school at your school? How many hours? Morning (before school) or after school... or both? How does that add into their school 'day?'
  • How do all the hours added up effect student performance? Mental attitude? health? Have a discussion with students on an individual level as I've done (many times). The results might shock you.
One thing is for certain after my research. We don't discuss this enough in schools or with students. We often preach about 'balance' but rarely do we look at the real picture.

As we seek to build more caring, thoughtful, healthy, compassionate and connected citizens... maybe we should.

Here's one I struggled to write in here but can't let go.

One pool of educators I spoke with in the survey stated kids just need to plan better. When I asked this pool if kids had the opportunity to plan, if discussions were being had about days with excessing demands... As a result of the conversation 11 out of 20 educators said they would be giving this some thought and look at restructuring due dates for some students with tough time demands.

PLPs (Personal Learning Plans) in Vermont can add some insight to these scenarios. They can. They should go that deep. If we connect with more kids on a personal level we'll have a better understanding what's being asked of them and how 'school' is actually looking / working or not working in their lives. From there we can help kids make adjustments to their approach and also to 'school' itself.

Doing more faster' isn't scaleable. Brushing all this 15+ hour day business off as 'good prep for life' isn't either. There's a deeper discussion we can have.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The need to talk about Homework. Plain and simple

I posted this on Twitter when I was a bit frustrated...

And it got quite a response.


Don't roll your eyes. ; )

Homework has been debated... and I mean a TON over the years.

I've watched for many years as my own children have labored through hours of homework each night. We've had some interesting discussions over how much of that work they feel actually has value. I listen mostly and keep my observations silent. 

Most often their homework is in excess of three hours per night. It's increasingly rare that they get downtime in the evening or get any significant family time save our parental demand to eat together, uh, when we can.' Extra curricular practices and jobs often interfere with any sort of schedule that puts us all together in the evening. We eat separately often, and struggle to carve out time to actually 'connect.'

Unfortunately over much of their academic lives homework has carried penalty based grades and wasn't viewed as formative assessement. That's another discussion.

I've thought many times in my life how I'd love to reclaim so much of that 'homework' time and actually do something else with my children.

And yes, I do 'help' with homework when I can and try to be involved. But it's not substantial or practical to think I can be involved often.

I hear this struggle in many circles of friends who have middle through high school age students... and most importantly from students themselves. I talk with students about it everywhere I go.

Disclaimer... I work in education and I've always wondered and challenged the value of excessive amounts of homework. 

Often relentlessly.

I collect information about the business of 'homework' on the web. For nine years it is was part of a project based learning ramp up I did with high school students on how technology is effecting education. Those projects included student analysis and parent interviews each year... and were very telling.

I've read countless articles, journals and such and I have interviewed many experts on the topic. I also broached the topic with over 50 schools worldwide as part of a sabbatical exploring innovation in education. Yup. It's a weird hobby I guess.

So I decided to do a small survey of my own finally. I surveyed 60 people from three different schools as follows:

20 students in grades 9-12

20 adults who work in 9-12 education

20 parents of children in 9-12 education

Each group was asked various questions and the first was about 'homework.'

Without entering the debate of should we have homework or not, or even what constitutes value in homework, I focused simply on 'volume.'

Of the students surveyed, all 14 of 20 reported having more than 2 hours per night.

10 of 20 reported having three hours or more.

4 reported having more than four hours per night.

3 out of 20 reported 5 or more hours per night.

When surveying parents, 18 of 20 reported that their children have too much homework.

Homework was also a hot issue on the survey over school breaks. Of the 20 students surveyed, all 20 reported having homework in excess of 15 hours over a week long break... that means roughly two full working days of homework.

Of the 60 people surveyed, the breakdown for whether we should have homework over breaks / vacations lays out as follows:

No: 20
yes: 0

No: 20
yes: 0

Adults in education:
No: 12
Yes: 8

That's an interesting split isn't it?

Many teachers reported they were encouraged to give homework over breaks.

Of course, one student story may seem biased to thread into a report such as this, but, I couldn’t resist.

A student came into class one day very upset that one of his teachers that day had assigned 150 pages of reading to be completed that night, the same night that he would leave school early (at 1245pm) for a hockey game. The return time from the game, when the team bus would arrive back at school was estimated at 1230am. Of course, that doesn’t not factor in drive home, a shower, likely something to eat, and actually getting to sleep, and getting up (as the student reported) at 545am the next morning to get ready and get to school. When the student explained his schedule for the day, the teacher simply replied ‘you can read it on the bus.’ The student then asked me if I’d ‘ever tried to read 150 pages of a book on a hockey bus with 25 people, gear, music, conversations and bus noise?’ We both had a good laugh and I asked him to talk to the teacher about an extension. The student came back later in the day and said the extension was 'denied.'

Homework management policies are in place in many schools throughout the country. Many allocate extensions for folks with heavy workloads, extended extracurricular events, personal issues, and the like. Again, extending homework excessively into the evening, and on school breaks and vacations is part of that school time creep that is robbing students of valuable time to connect with family and to actually take a break or to pursue other interests.

We sort of understand in the workplace that a 15-16 hour workday is 'too much.' Just not so much in education.

What does the student day, on average, actually look like at your schools? Are we actually asking people to practice what we preach... or are we making a series of unrealistic demands that they just need to figure out?

Calls for 'More Rigor'

I've had many discussions in schools about 'increased calls for rigor.' All too often those calls for more rigor are simply unsophisticated calls for 'more.'

The debate needs to be more thoughtful.

If we start and continue meaningful discussions on the amount of homework... we may find we're kidding ourselves. When we boast that we need and value 'family' time, encourage kids to pursue their own interests, and even try 'reading for fun' then we should put more thought into analyzing what a student day is actually like.

What if we discover that kids are actually pursuing less rigorous classes because their personal lives can't handle or be restructured to accommodate highly excessive homework? Sound elitist? it is actually. Such practices punish kids and families. It prevents them from exploring opportunities.

Here's are four simple recommendations on homework

1. Ask teachers to analyze how much homework is given and try to make reductions. And then keep doing it. Such practices force deeper pedagogical thinking about what's actually going on during the day in schools and how classes are structured. 

2. Make the practice formative and not punitive. For many students with troubled home lives the only answer shouldn't be 'try harder.'

3. Don't give homework over breaks or holidays. Period. Actually encourage people to take a break. A Thanksgiving break, with travel often involved, and having 8-15 hours of homework is, well, not a break rather it's a stress inducer.

4. If an administrator boasts statements of 'increasing rigor,' I'd encourage people to start asking thoughtful questions. What does more rigor 'actually' mean and how does it translate into student and family lives? "Doing more and faster," as Diana Laufenberg put's is, "isn't a sustainable solution."

I received a note from Ned Kirsch, Superintendent of Franklin West Supervisory Union and they are diving into a 'no homework' experiment at a middle school. This is a good read, and a bold initiative. Interesting that they've received "no complaints" about the decision too ; )

I received another note from a person I used to teach with that inspired me to finally get this entry online:

"No homework over breaks anymore and a new school schedule that builds in PD and callbacks for students to get help. Both moves have your fingerprints all over it."

It was rewarding. Even if I'm not there anymore ; )

Slow change... but change nonetheless ; )

Status quo can evolve.

What are the number of hours in a student day look like from the survey? We'll take a look next.

#vted @betavt