Tuesday, January 27, 2015

More than...

Our family dog of 11 years, Otis, passed away this morning. And It came on fast. 

When we woke up this morning Otis was panting loudly, an 'unusually so' sort of loud. After we started our morning routine to get ready for school, we noticed he was struggling to stand. It was an easy decision to bring him with us and and head to the animal hospital after we dropped the kids off at school.

As Otis struggled more in the car on our way, we left those school plans behind. By the time we arrived at the hospital Otis had already passed away.

We all came back home, stunned I guess, and we just resigned from the busy day.

Otis was ‘more than’ a pet to us. He was family. Turns out, he was a teacher too.

It’s hard to explain, but Otis had… empathy. It was in his eyes, his expressions, and his actions. He always seemed to know… ‘what and when.’ We’ve had many laughs over the years how he responded to… sentences. You just talked to him and he'd respond in kind with the outcome you wanted. We always laughed about how he just sort of… “knew” what was going on, and what you wanted. Otis was more of a ‘person’ in our household than ‘a dog.’ Otis was… intuitive. I always marveled at how much he could learn and how fast... how incredibly smart he was for, well, a dog. There are hundreds of stories. Show him something once... and he retained it, he did it.

Otis had charisma. He was one of those dogs everyone felt the need to come over and see when we were out and about. Walks, the store, baseball games… everyone seemed to find great joy in getting closer to him and giving him a good rub. He was friendly and inviting.

I came to appreciate and thoroughly enjoy his boundless love for walks, to play, to swim, and how he was always excited to go anywhere at anytime with any of us. He never seemed content really on his own. Otis wanted to be with one of us, all the time. He was with one of us in the house… often making his rounds from person to person. If you came in the house, no matter where he was, he always made his way to greet you.

And for how many times he’d drop a tennis ball on my lap and remind me to work a little less, or come up and sit on the couch with me while I read, I’ll always be grateful.

Otis had his routines with all of us in the house.

I’ve thought many times over the years how much I loved to see Janice head out on a walk with him, seeing my daughter do an Otis photo shoot, or watch my son hit tennis balls to him to fetch in the backyard for hours on end.

I've been thinking about the times I brought him into classes to talk about 'being present', or to baseball practices with me to show players 'anticipating the ball flight before it's thrown or hit.'

Otis was there when our little kids needed to feel safer in a room or to go to bed, or when one of us, especially Janice, went out on a walk.

We had a nighttime routine he and I. He was a big sort of dog, eye level with the bed. When were were all in the house, and he’d traveled from room to room to see everyone, he’d come over and rest his head on the bed next to me and wait for me to rub his head He’d groan to get my attention if I took too long to greet him. When I did, night after night, he’d sigh as I rubbed his head and soak it in. Eventually I’d say something like “ok, buddy, time for bed,” and he’d just head over to his bed next to ours on the floor, lay down after a few turns, and take a big deep breath and sigh again. It’s like he knew everyone was in place… and he could relax. On nights when one of us was out and about, when he couldn’t complete rounds… he never did sigh. He’d be restless. He'd lay by the door. He’d perk up at every noise he'd hear, waiting for one of us to come home, waiting for everyone to be in place again.

Somehow Otis’ whole nighttime routine helped me relax too. Knowing he was looking out for everyone, and offering his support and genuine love. The best kind of friendship.

Many mornings I’d wake up because he’d breathe on me, eye level at the bedside, eyes wide, tail wagging, ready to start the day. It was always good for a laugh. Even though his dog breath wasn't always the most pleasant way to wake up, I never got sick of him doing it.

Death of those closest to our hearts, in our closest circles, is always difficult to process. It never gets easier.

It's times like this... when you wonder if you could have done something differently to help him. If you could have picked up on signs quicker that he was ill or got him some treatment that would have helped him be with us longer. Last night he was fine though. In the car to greet me after a trip, checking in on us around the house though the night, coming up to see us, hanging out with us while we decompressed from the day, moving with us from room to room until he sighed and went to sleep.

And of course, at times like this we all wish we spent more time with Otis somehow. A few more minutes, one more walk, one more rub down just to let him know how valued he was. It's also a yearning for what you've lost... fleeting wishes for a little more time... an ache for what won't be again.

Those emotions are powerful, especially when you see them in the eyes of your family.

We’ll all be restless for a good while I guess. 11 years of that kind of companionship will be sorely missed. We'll hear a noise and wish it was him coming in the room. We'll wish it was him rumbling down the stairs and plowing his head onto your lap. We'll miss him standing in the middle of the kitchen in the busy morning, just happy to be in the mix. We'll long for his companionship on a walk. WeIl miss the way he made us laugh daily.

I’m grateful for the time we had with Otis. We we were all good for each other and much richer for it. But... the house already seems much less full without him.

11 years does go by in a blink. We can take comfort as time passes in the idea that I really don't think we could have provided a better life for Otis, or that we could have enjoyed his company more in our daily and busy lives. I sincerely wish everyone would treat and value pets the same way.

Time goes faster as you get older. Perhaps an illusion... because it's easier to get tunnel vision when you get more busy. Otis was a good teacher to our family to be more present, and more thoughtful.

Such things are always a sobering reminder to enjoy our time together and to enjoy our cherished company. You never really know when you won't have the opportunity again.

We’ll miss you here, buddy. You helped remind us that companionship, that being present is the most important thing, the most rewarding thing.

Our friend, Otis. Our dog. Our family. 

So much… More than…

Friday, January 23, 2015

Getting Things Moving: Educon 2015 conversation

Get Things Moving: Theory Into Action Steps
Educon Conversation, Session 1, Rm 307
session description

"Schools are often cultures of 'add.' Initiatives pile on, one after another until people reach the breaking point and the core mission and values begin to drift. 'Time in schools' can be reclaimed to unlock innovation and even, yes, promote civility!"

We want to move things forward in schools... but we often think and do things the same way. Business goes on, as usual, and things don't change. Many innovative changes are often an 'add' and they struggle to maintain motion.

Here are five ways below to start changes in motion. It'll build collaborative time, creative time, promote socialization, and start to unlock traditional barriers to innovation.

They're simple. They don't cost anything. They create motion you can build on.

Summary notes:

1. School Schedule: Unlocking PD. Included, not added

2. Master Schedule: Understanding the 'Student perspective'

3. Choice Time / Day / Interdisciplinary projects: Interdisciplinary, connecting

4. Advisory: Done well, it has many positive ripples

5. School lunch! We can do better

I've been helping many schools explore these threads and how they relate to their special circumstances. Let me know if I can help!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sabbatical Encounters Part 1: Milan Aboard

While I was on sabbatical I had a number of random discussions with people about education. Educators, parents, business folk, and many students... folks from late retirement age to youngsters in elementary school. Here's the first of these stories I'll post through the rest of the year.

Milan Centrale
Milan aboard

I stood there looking at the departure board in Milan Centrale train station and put the pieces together. Rush to get a ticket, make way to the far end of the station to train I wanted to catch to Milan Malpensa Airport... in 15 minutes... or wait another hour for the next train.

I was tired, just off a consuming trip to the Winter Institute in Reggio Emilia. I still wasn't sleeping well... still perplexed about the new developments in my job back home. I figured that sitting in the station and towing a small suitcase around or sitting in a coffee shop in the station didn't sound like much fun at all.

15 minutes to grab a ticket a floor below and catch the train... engage.

I stepped on the train to the Malpensa Airport with a minute to spare. As the doors were about to close another couple stepped on towing multiple bags, laughing and talking in classic NY, USA accent. They stowed their load of stuff and sat across the isle a few seats ahead of me.

When the fellow gave me one of those welcome nods I bit and asked where they were from. Sure enough, New York.

I told them I was a teacher from Vermont on sabbatical checking out innovation in many schools in Europe, Canada, and the United States. They laughed. They were both teachers in NY.

I asked them about their jobs in education... and the following poured out like a dam bursting.

The fellow, a social studies teacher of 22 years was, for lack of a better way to describe it, pretty excited to retire.

He described the school he worked at for his whole career as a shell of it's former self. He described he'd been asked to teach math over the last few years because his administrator deemed him capable and voiced concerns that his social studies classes were "much more popular than some others in the department." The decision was made to eliminate the 'popular class and teacher,' and move that teacher to the math dept... to teach a subject he had no interest in teaching. Last year he'd been asked to take on an Earth Science class due to staffing issues, something he'd never taught before.

I asked why his social studies classes were so popular, hoping for a good explanation. I got a good one.

The glimmer in this fellows eyes and excitement overflowed as he described his social studies days... how he tied relevant current events into studies of the past. His courses then were explorations of moral and ethical and community connections rather than memorization and regurgitation trials of events. Project nights, community debates, you name it. Pretty impressive stuff by the sounds of it. The glimmer in his eyes disappeared and his posture changed when he spoke of his trials in math and science, especially the latter. "I'm learning day to day, just before the students," he said. "I've never taught science before. It's our new school motto for teachers. Anyone with multiple certifications, and many who don't like myself, are being asked to fill in to teach classes due to staffing reductions."

A asked why he felt the school had taken such a turn. "It's a number of things," he said. "State mandates, the school district budgets, and the school leadership. Out principal is basically ineffective.  We don't do anything innovative. It's pretty much business as usual. He also hired one of his own close friends into the assistant principal role about five years ago. He's a nice enough guy, but he shouldn't be an administrator. He's very disorganized and pretty ineffective at coordinating school discipline and systems. It was getting bad before, but that's when things really went down hill. The schools new high flying agenda," he said, "is to increase our test scores. Budgets are falling, the school facilities are crumbling around us, and morale is at an all time low."

"My story is nothing though, compared to hers," he said pointing at his wife.

She was an elementary school teacher, and like her husband, very much ready to retire after 25 years.

She described that her school had recently hired it's third principal in five years. The latest, like the others, had completely different agendas that their predecessors and had embarked on a paperwork producing palooza. "We have committees to discuss making committees," she said. "We churn ideas and brainstorm but nothing ever gets accomplished. Most people, the good ones, don't volunteer for committees anymore because we never get anything done."

She went on to explain the new principal had pushed the school into it's third curriculum overhaul in five years. "The paperwork had been turned in and like the others, no followup, no meetings, no discussions, no rationale why all the work had been done. No feedback. no discussion, no professional expectations. It's just busy work." I described this as "another binder on the shelf syndrome," and both nodded, smiled and shook their heads in agreement.

I listened for about 30 minutes as their stories flowed out about crumbling facilities, leaky pipes and windows, buying their own space heaters for their classrooms in the Winter, moldy air filters, aging and heavily restricted computers, increased enrollment, decreases in support staff, dramatic increases in standardized testing initiatives and State curriculum mandates, and reduction in services for families in need. "It's worked it's way into extra-curricular activities" the fellow described. He coached and described steady increases in costs for students to participate in extra-curricular programs and demands on his time to fundraise to keep the program going and get the facilities in good shape.

I then asked how they were going to stay healthy. "Trips to Italy help," the woman said and we all laughed again and agreed.

I asked if they'd ever thought of going into administration.

"I don't want to get into administration at this point in my career, the fellow said, and his wife shook her head and said "no way. Too many headaches." He continued. "I actually have an administrators license I just never wanted to go that route. I love teaching kids. At least I did in social studies. I struggle day-to-day teaching science. I don't love it, I don't feel I'm good at it. But after my second year now, I'm getting better at it. It's painful," as his face cringed and he had a long look at the floor, "to watch my old department shift toward memorization and testing though. Very painful. Don't get me wrong, I love having a job. It's just... not like it used to be."

She described the path she had ahead in five years to retirement as "close the door and teach the best I can with what I have." she said. "My supply budgets have been cut again so this year I'll spend more than $2500 of my own money for the classroom. He and I," pointing at her husband, "disagree on how much I'm spending out of our pocket." He rolled his eyes and nodded, and she elbowed him in the arm.

As the conversation moved along... I noticed a young lady leaning on the headrest of the seat in front of her and taking in our conversation, peering over the fence style, and her eyes were wide. I said hello and she immediately moved up to the seat just behind the couple from NY. "This is crazy luck," she said. She, it turns out, was from the US and just finishing up a college teaching fellowship in Italy and on her way back to Washington DC.

I asked the young lady about her work teaching program in school. "The place where I did my student teaching in the US was more like a prison," she said. "Armed guards, metal detectors, doors shut, loud speakers blaring, horrible food. It was pretty scary. So I took a teaching fellowship abroad to see what else was out there."

I asked about the schools in Italy she'd seen so far. She was teaching in a high school. "They're pretty nice, and pretty old" she said. "It's a pretty traditional setup where I was teaching. Students are asked to memorize a lot. Desks in rows and all facing the front. Mostly students were pretty bored with what they're asked to do. I was asked to teach pretty traditional stuff, pretty traditional curriculum and in a (quoting her fingers) 'stand and deliver' fashion. The kids were bored and are pretty disrespectful. I'm glad it's over actually."

She looked blankly for a moment... I'm going to miss Italy though, especially the food." We all laughed. Then she paused... "I can't believe I'm in this train with you guys and you're all talking about this. I've been pretty stressed about all this over the last few months."

We all sort of sat there for a minute silently... and I asked them if they'd be interested in opening a new school, counter to all those things they described. We all had a good laugh and it broke up the therapy session.

I asked if they'd mind if I wrote all this down into a story to share on my blog at some point. They all agreed, but wished to remain anonymous. Of course, I agreed.

The young lady spoke up again and asked me. "So, you're on sabbatical to look at innovative schools? I still love teaching," she said. "It's what I've wanted to do for a long time," but I just have to find the right school. Can you send me a list of places you're visiting? I want to find a place that's doing something innovative."

The fellow spoke up. "Don't make the mistake I did. Be willing to move around when things change for the worse," he said, and his wife nodded. "I wished I had moved to another school earlier. It's tough to find a place now willing to hire me at my age. Don't wish you did. Do it. Sometimes you can't correct things. You have to be willing to move on. School philosophies change. Administrators come and go. Some of those folks are great and you'll love your job and some just shouldn't be in education at all. Find a place you can be creative and where you're work is appreciated, somewhere you can take risk and do innovative things."

"Good advice" I said.

The young lady stared at him for a bit. "I need to find those places." She asked me again if I'd share my list of innovative schools I was visiting. I agreed and she gave me her email address.

As our train ride came to a close, I told them I had to confess... how I'd actually gone to great lengths to plan this meeting... and we all had a good laugh.

"This was incredible," the young lady said. "I was, honestly, pretty discouraged about heading back and struggling to find a place I wanted to teach. Hopefully," she told me, "you can help me. Don't forget to send that list to me." She gave us all hefty hugs, wished us safe travels, and whisked off to catch her next flight.

The couple from NY and I stood there for a bit and exchanged contact info. I wished them luck, and many more trips to Italy. "Remember, don't use our names," the fellow said, "but tell our story. I'm looking forward to reading it and about your other travels," and they headed off to their own flight.

I stood there and watched them walk away and let that whole train ride discussion soak in.

Over two hours that night I ate dinner, sipped my way through a bottle of wine and wrote down these notes about four American educators, who randomly caught a train from Milan Centrale to the Malpensa airport, at the same time, on the same car.

I received an email from the young lady this last Fall that she landed a job at a school I recommended, and had glowing reports about the work she was doing with kids and the community.

So... what's your story you'd tell someone on a train?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Followup to my Edutopia Post: School lunch... change it for the better

We can do better.
What we eat and how we eat it are pretty important things to learn to do well.

Unfortunately both practices are heavily marginalized in far too many schools. Fuel up very quickly in the caf, often on pretty lousy food and take one health class your Freshman year that talks about eating well... and that's about it.

Sarcastic... but often true in many schools that I've visited.

What we eat, how we eat it, and what else we learn about food in schools is just one of many pieces of the puzzle that need a fresh start to rethink how we educate students.

I applaud kids recent efforts to post pictures of their grim school lunches via Twitter or Instagram. It's great to see kids speak up and have a voice on the quality of their school lunches - or lack thereof. Most often these posts are a wakeup call to the community, school teachers, and officials - once they get exposed. Those programs exposed online often follow with statements from administrators or school board members of "sorry, we didn't know it'd had gotten this bad." Those statements tell me one thing... the adults are not often in the cafeteria, or if they are they are focused on discipline in that space and not what's really going on at a deeper level.

Government subsidized processed chicken patties and burgers, reheated fries, sugar laden drinks, and ice cream bars. Unappealing, unhealthy stuff often shrouded in "best we can do with what we have" statements.

There's a shining light in this field though... It's different at the Calhoun School in Manhattan, NYC.

While on sabbatical I took my second visit to the Calhoun School in Manhattan, NYC to look more deeply at their food program called 'Eat Right Now.'

What does your school lunch look like?
The wealthy private school in Manhattan, NYC connotation Calhoun carries can prevent schools from looking more deeply at their food program... and that'd be a mistake.

At $3.12 per student per day, they offer an incredible range of healthy food. While their entrees are strictly portioned controlled, their 'quantity' comes from fruit, fresh vegetables, yogurt, and a wide variety of healthy drinks. Yogurt, fresh fruit, and drinks are available all day.

Yes, all day.

The line of students after school at Calhoun involved in sports and extra-curricular activities for a 'pick-me-up' snack at the end of the day was pretty impressive. The kids I spoke with who filed in for the end of day snacks, were very appreciative.

Chef Robert 'Bobo' Searles chose that price point at Calhoun - actually his price point is $3.25 but they are currently running at $3.12 (they save the extra money to do even more special culinary things), and the school makes it a priority.

Quality food and food education is a priority at Calhoun. That's a very refreshing approach, and one that will benefit kids and our society far, far into the future.

My meal at Calhoun the day I visited, pictured above...

Mexican lasagna (vegetarian or with beef),wrap with tomato and fresh avocado, salad with pico de gallo and cilantro lime vinaigrette dressing (my choice that day of many). All prepared fresh from scratch - including the salad dressing. All delicious and all served by the chefs who made it.

Salad and fruit... was all you can eat. Great emphasis, don't you think?

In summary... most schools choose 'food service program.' Fuel up, get back to work.

Food service programs vs Culinary Dining and Education Program

The 'Eat Right Now' initiative at Calhoun is the best program I've found in the country to integrate the importance of 'food, eating, and making healthy choices' into kids lives in while in school.  It's not just in the numbers... it's how they do it too.

It was  tough to summarize this culinary program at Calhoun in 1000 words or less in the article I wrote recently for Edutopia, but it serves as a decent intro. There's so much more to the food program at Calhoun... community service efforts, culinary classes offered to kids in middle and high school, and many more examples of how chefs introduce kids to making healthy choices and expanding food palates. Integrating their food program with curriculum makes it even more special.

My thanks to Chef Robert 'Bobo' Searles and to Beth Kreiger for hosting me on my visit to Calhoun and my sincere gratitude for the work the school is doing on this front. Their willingness to share has helped so many.

Don't stop at shifting to a more healthier peanut butter and switching to wheat rolls. Rethink school lunch. Make it better. Get teachers and administrators in the cafeteria eating with kids to see what it's like. Make the whole process better, less rushed, and more civil.

Good benchmarks...

  • if you posted a picture of the lunch served what would people think? 
  • what are kids mostly eating in the caf? If it's chicken patties, burgers, fries and pizza... you can do better. 

Many times I've wished I could eat at Calhoun, a school, on a regular basis.  Imagine if more kids and adults felt that way about food in their school?

If you're school lunch is ok, don't stop. Make it even better. Could it be integrated into academic studies?

School lunch is one piece of the puzzle to make schools better. And it's important.


Pictures from:
The Atlantic: Helping kids eat commodities
School lunch at Calhoun: Photo by Adam Provost