Stregths-Based School.....brilliant ideas by Author Jenifer Fox

                Thsi morning I listened to an hour-long live online interview with Jenifer Fox on a Stregths-Based School. http://www.stevehargadon.com/2012/04/live-tuesday-april-9th-jenifer-fox-on.html Very inspiring!

Here what is says online about her:
Jenifer Fox is the author of Your Child's Strengths, and now Head of School at The Clariden School of Southlake.  We'll be talking about what it's like to start a 21st-Century high school program, blended and project-based learning, and her relentless pursuit of getting people to stop teaching traditional content.

Jenifer Fox is a turnaround and strategic advancement expert. Her work includes expanding enrollments, boosting sustainability through rigorous and successful fund raising and taking independent schools to the next level through coordinated strategic plans focused on the organization's strengths. She is the author of the bestselling education book, Your Child's Strengths (Viking 2008; Penguin, 2009), Stories of Excellence: Case Studies of Exemplary Teaching and Learning with Technology. (NAIS, 2008) and the Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists (Jossey-Bass, 2011). Fox is widely considered the international leader in developing strengths-based curriculum for youth. Fox is also an expert at integrating curriculum and technology and is creating online, project-based platforms for youth.

                      I got a very important idea listening to this interview: Fox states that good education is about preparing you for a good life. What is a good life but meaningful work and meaningful relationships and she strongly believes that there is not one cookie-cutter type of education that could get us there. Brilliant!
                       She also had some incredibly neat ideas about teachers of the future. Teachers no longer need to know all content there is to know, they need to be master researcher, and who understands the questions. Teachers of the future, Jenifer Fox states, are going to be teachers that are NOT specialists but generalists, who can help kids find their own information!!! She believes all high school students should know how to use Excell, photoshop and have some basic movie-making skills. 
                     She also addresses parents' nervousness about the de-emphasis on testing and high school kids being bored in school and a growing need for school to actually be ENGAGING. What a concept, what a breath of shed air!! I am ordering her book this minute. 


Systems. How they can inspire or burn us....

                Systems. We exist within them, we work in them, we send our children to them. There are systems all around us. School systems, government systems, economic systems, food systems. After my experience working in DCPS for 3 years, I have become ultra sensitive to systems and how they have the potential to make its participants either thrive or wilt. This is one of the reasons I am resigning from DCPS. 

                Currently, I work for DCPS, a system notorious for being highly disorganized, top-down, and distrusting of its teachers. Most of its teacher-directed policies are created with the premise that,  'there are some really bad teachers out there who are not doing their job right and we must weed them out". This was all fine at the beginning of the process, but every year we have what Washingtonians now call, "Churn and burn". Most currently, I have been appalled to see the very open and heavy recruitment and hiring of non-DCPS employees. All the while, some 333 effective DCPS teachers wait to get rehired by any school after being displaced due to funding reductions to their schools. Hundreds of new teachers coming in, hundreds going out. 

                 The morale-busting continues with the excessive 5-times a year obligatory observations of which only one is scheduled, the rest are pop-ins. In a 10-month period that means we get observed every 2 months. No matter how effective and experienced the teacher, they still get this many observations. One could be 2 years from retirement and have been a great teacher all their life yet still getting 5 observations in a 10-months period. Next, the increasing number of enormously costly, two-week long, standardized tests. Every child, beginning in 2nd grade, goes through this grueling 2-week process yearly. Each year, there are more and more subjects added to be tested. At the expense of our kids' education and time, the results are then used primarily to help fire teachers and to promote unhealthy competition amongst teachers. I don't have an issue with evaluation of children's education, yet the use of the scores to grade the teacher (called, "value-added") has been proven to have a corrupting affects on education overall.  

                  Next, the mandatory and over-collection of data. This requirement to collect and report data back downtown has become so time consuming in the last few years that classroom teachers are out of the classroom for hours on end collecting data from individual kids. Where are the rest of the kids while this is taking place? with substitutes, who are not teachers.  
                    In comparison, I would like to give you a sense of my experience interviewing with Arlington Public Schools. I feel a comparison is needed here to get parents, especially, to understand why this systemic problem is also our problem. A teacher beat down by a system is less likely to be emotionally available to our children, and when they are not emotionally available they are less likely to inspire, connect and enrich the lives of our children. In Arlington, after three years, the observation count drops dramatically and teachers get to have a say about how they will improve their own practice and even asked declare ways they will address any weaknesses as part of their yearly evaluations.  These type of teacher-related policies communicate trust. Trust then allows great teachers the freedom to do what they do best, teach, inspire and connect with our children. As incentives, teachers get incentivize through professional development opportunities as a way to advance in their field. This communicates respect. DCPS, by handing out monetary bonuses to their highly effective teachers, promotes favoritism; this negative practice foments unhealthy competition with the same peers with whom collaboration is required for a good working relationship.  Having been with this system for three years now, I have been feeling my morale, my energy and my creativity quickly wilting and it was time I listened to my body. I am an excellent teacher, but DCPS as a system, got me down. DCPS made me feel paranoid and made me feel ineffective most days. After each observation I would feel helpless for days on end. 
                     I have become convinced through this experience with DCPS that in order for any system to be sustainable, run effectively and smoothly for years to come, its leaders need to insure that its big, overriding ideas become the driving force behind all its policies. In addition, its big, overriding ideas need to have respect and trust embedded. All policies, no matter how benign they seem, communicate assumptions about a group of people. That assumption, however subtle and nuanced, will work its way to the inner psyche of all its participants and either inspire and energize or wilt and harden them from the inside out. 

                      I have chosen not to become hardened and wilted and sought shelter in a less harsh waters. To be an effective teacher I need to remain open, fresh and inspired myself. If my blood-pressure is to the roof, and I am losing sleep over increasing the percentage of higher level questions I am asking in any given lesson, I have lost all focus. As Einstein said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." I needed to be someplace where the stuff that can't be counted, like inspiration, still counts. 



THIS is what kindergarten should look like.....

                               I am making a point this summer to show all the magic of what education COULD be without all the testing that is currently dumbing it down. I have this teacher, Sally, whom I follow through her blog and she does amazing, creative and magical things with young kids. Imagine all kindergarten classes looked and felt this wonderful. Below is a sampling of what she does.....here is the LINK to her site too....
A few weeks ago I was walking around the neighborhood with my husband when I spotted this wonderful dead tree sitting on the curb -- it still had the roots!!  "Honey, pick up that tree for me."  My husband grimaced.  He knew all too well - another art project!

Trees are one of my favorite art forms!  Here is how I took a dead tree and had the children transform it into a Fairy Tree.  (It was a part of my recycling unit - we recycled a dead tree!! LOL!)

How the simple act of noticing saves, betters and changes lives

                               The theme of my life lately has been the act of noticing. It sounds benign enough, but oh boy! does it have huge implications in our lives. It began with a movie I watched called, Twelve and Landing. In this amazing movie all the characters made life changing decisions based on whether or not they were noticed as human beings. Why does it have such an effect on people's lives? 
                                Noticing, in my experience has an anti-wilting affect on the human soul. Having worked with kids for many years, I have always experienced the joy kids feel when you see that something unique in them, and let them know it, make them aware that you know about this 'diamond nugget' you see in them. It's no wonder then, that we as adults too need this soul feeding experience.  It's human nature to have this need to not only be loved and valued, but also to be noticed and acknowledged for the our more unique and more subtle qualities. 
                                This new theme and focus on the value of attention and noticing has even made me reconsider the way I raise my own children. For example, for the past three years I have been involved in DC's education policy battle to bring back common sense into the District. Right now we have more and more testing each year, a churn of new inexperienced teachers being hired yearly despite hundreds of effective, experienced teachers being displaced by budget changes. In addition there is less and less emphasis in the arts and project-based learning due to this obsession with raising a tests score. This 'battle', as I call it, has taken me away from my own children due to countless meetings and added responsibilities. Yet, even if I were to be 'successful' in my advocacy work, I figured the ultimate return on my kids' education would have been minimal. I began this policy work as a way to better my children's education, yet, meanwhile they would have lost all this valuable and irreplaceable quality time with me. I have therefore chosen to refocus my energies on a much more sure-return on my efforts, quality time with my kids as a priority. In the act of noticing them, listening to them and valuing them beyond just because they are mine will make more of a difference in their lives than 1000 hours of education advocacy work in the District. 


               I feel like I finally have more time again to be able to write. I have been actively involved in the last 3 years in informing myself and in many ways battling the crazy 'de'form agenda taking over our schools across the nation. But lately, I have wanted to simply exists outside of these battles in my head and focus more on what works in education rather than always trying to expose how currently we are headed the OTHER direction. The shift in focus is a much needed on. I am ultimately a teacher and a parent first, not an organizer, or a politician. So look for posts more about schools and teachers that are doing wonderful things in education. My need to get renewed inspiration in my calling as a teacher has me needing these more positive narratives swimming around in my head. Ultimately, we teachers need to be inspired too.