Friday, November 20, 2015

Achievement, Success, and Potential

Achievement, Success, and Potential
by Rod Rock, Superintendent of Schools

(here is a link to a YouTube animation of this blog post: 

Achievement, success, and potential are interesting terms to me. As educators, policymakers, journalists, students, and parents, we use them often. In so doing, are we aware of the messages sent in the words?

The mid-sized, Clarkston, Michigan school district where I work as the superintendent employs over 900 people. If each of us took an IQ test, I know for certain that I would not achieve the highest score. If we each took a personality assessment, I am sure that I would not be the most outgoing or self-confident. In painting, welding, wallpapering, economics, history, looks, landscaping, tree climbing, or speed reading, I would not finish on top.

I ride my bike almost every day of the year. My goal this year is 7,200 miles. Last year, I rode 3,800 miles and the year before I missed my 1,000 mile goal by 70 miles due to an accident that left me multiple broken bones. If I compared myself to most people who bike in Clarkston, I would not be the fastest, the most able to climb the highest hill, nor the most technically sound. Yet, I feel like I am growing over time in my strength and working toward a healthy, long life.

What if I were to base my success and potential on how well I achieved on an IQ test compared to the 900 people with whom I work? What if I were to base my success and potential for bike riding on the abilities of the most practiced or fastest rider in the community? I don’t imagine I would very often feel good about myself or about my ability to lead a school district.

Our schools are compared often with those in neighboring communities, states, and countries. Our teachers are by law compared to one another. We measure our students constantly, both in school and in their extra-curricular activities, essentially assigning labels via statements like, "You have tremendous potential," "You’re behavior is really challenging," “You’re unmotivated,” and "You are our highest achievers--our best and brightest, the cream of the crop." What do we mean when we say these things? What do our students garner from these words?

As I ride my bike near the arbitrary lines that separate Clarkston from neighboring communities, I think about the kids who live on either side of the lines. Honestly, I have no desire for Clarkston’s kids to do better than the kids on the other side of the line. I do not wish for them to have a lower quality of life or a less excellent education. I do not want them to have fewer opportunities, lower expectations, or higher test scores. I want every child in every community, no matter where the adults draw the boundaries, to have an excellent education and to feel dignified, included, capable, and certain. I want every child in every community to feel that their community believes in them. I want them to see, for themselves and for the future, that an investment today in an excellent education is a sign of each community’s belief in the future; that each child has significant gifts and powerful contributions to make.

“If the primacy of dignity was obvious to everyone, then we would look more often at children [and adults] through the lenses of their own perceptions of themselves. There would be far fewer labels--such as ‘at-risk,’ ‘tough,’ ‘special,’ and ‘disabled’--applied to [people].*

As superintendents, policy makers, parents, educators, journalists, and students, let us more often view children through the lenses of their own self perceptions. Let us look at each child as a beautiful work of art with amazing intelligence and gifts. Let us educate every child in every community as if each is talented and gifted, which is true--if that is the label we assign and uphold; if that is the expectation we set. Let us send the message to each child that, when they work hard, persistently pursue their passions, and posses self-efficacy, they can define for themselves the meaning of the terms achievement, successes, and potential.

*Senge, et. al, 2012, pp. 176 to 183, “Seeing the Learner.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Never Enough

As my heart beats, I care about children. As I breathe, I want every child to feel safe, heard, smart, and believed. As my blood flows, I desire to ensure that every child has what she/he requires in order to feel safe, heard, smart, and believed. And, knowing what I know; believing what I believe to be true, I am forever uneasy, endlessly restless, and never feeling like I am doing enough for the kids in our nation.

I recently heard a radio story of the lifelong effects of stress and anxiety experienced in childhood. The researcher in the story shared a sense of “surprise” that the data revealed that anxiety and stress in childhood relate strongly to chronic diseases later in life. (“Childhood Stress may Prime the Pump for Chronic Disease Later,” NPR, September 29, 2015). This is at least the third time in three years that I have heard such a story on the radio. I’m not doing enough.

Research says that young children need time for free play in order to develop social skills, interact positively with others, and feel successful in school (Bandura, 1991; Whitebread, 2014). Other research says that our youngest children require nurturing, direct attention, and to hear millions of words spoken to them in order to develop strong reading skills (Tough, 2008). As I hear stories of very young children who struggle with social skills and thus become labeled as difficult or challenging (labels, once believed, are hard to shake), I know that I am not doing enough. As I hear stories of a legislature who wants to punish kids who can’t read by age 8, I know that I am not doing enough.

“Recent research has demonstrated that factors such as anxiety, stress, fear of failure, stereotype threat, and low sense of belonging can substantially impact working memory, executive functioning, and intellectual performance” (Kaufman and Duckworth, 2015, p. 3). As I work in a nation that focuses so intently and immensely on standardized test data to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers, schools, and students, I know that I am not doing enough.

In 1983, Howard Gardner conceptualized the idea of Multiple Intelligences. It says that there are many ways to be smart--the lenses through which we understand the world and our areas of passion. Some express what they know through the arts, others with words, some through nature, and still others through movement. “Gardner’s work reframes one of the subtlest, most pervasive and most destructive mental models about school: the linking of achievement to the most intellectual forms of intelligence and the devaluation of all other forms. This view of intelligence (and thus of human value) has devastating effects on the vast number of children whose gifts are overlooked or ignored in school. (Senge, et. al, 2012, p. 182). I know that I am not doing enough.

Childhood is a gift, experienced by many. For those children who are rushed through it; whose fundamental needs are not met, their paths forward are riddled with potholes and earthen dams. Although these challenges are not insurmountable (after all, our society would never define a child as hopeless), a collective and insuppressible vigor in preventing them is the very definition of humanity.

As long as my heart beats, my breath comes, and my blood flows, I will believe that we can ensure that every child experiences an enriching childhood. Along the way, uneasiness, restlessness, and the feeling that I can never do enough will perpetually accompany me.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Reggio Approach: A Choice for Childhood by Shelly Humphrey

The Reggio Approach: A Choice for Childhood
By Shelly Humphrey, Teacher, Clarkston Community Schools, Early Childhood Center

Early childhood is a beautiful moment of time in a young child’s life that encompasses
the years from birth to age 8. The amazing growth, the intriguing experiences, the exciting
discoveries, and the joyful, playful learning that is intrinsic to a child’s optimal early
development happens during the first eight years.

Unfortunately, this dynamic time of growth and learning is often compromised when
children begin traditional, formal education with a focus on the acquisition of academic skills in
developmentally inappropriate ways. The beauty, the wonder, the marvel, and the play of
childhood are lost. Our children suffer when they are deprived of this gift of time and the playful
learning that takes place during their early years. It is our unique and most important
responsibility as parents and teachers to value, protect, and enrich these early childhood years for
our children. We must choose wisely when we consider their educational opportunities.

The families and educators of Reggio Emilia, Italy have provided us with a rich example
of educational excellence. For more than 50 years the teachers of Reggio Emilia, guided by their
founder Loris Malaguzzi, have carefully researched and meticulously documented the education
of their children. Their goal was to understand how children learn and how best to promote and
extend this learning. Their approach is based on exhaustive studies of the work of Howard
Gardner, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner and others. A Newsweek story listed the schools of
Reggio Emilia as the best early childhood programs in the world (“The Ten Best Schools in the
World, and What We Can Learn from Them,” December 2, 1991). NAEYC (the National
Association for the Education of Young Children) revised their descriptions of developmentally
appropriate best practices to include examples from the Reggio Approach. This world-renowned
approach has garnered the schools of Reggio Emilia the respect and admiration of Harvard’s
Project Zero who partnered with them to extend their “Making Learning Visible” research. The
Reggio Approach is a true mark of excellence and quality. It is a constructivist theory of
educating the whole child based upon research, documentation, collaboration, and reflection.

The Reggio Approach begins with an affirming belief in the image of the child as rich,
strong, and powerful. Children are seen as competent, curious, full of potential, and capable of
constructing their own knowledge. Curriculum emerges out of the children’s interests and
children collaborate with each other in small groups on inquiry-based projects developed from
their own questionings and wonderings. Children learn reading, writing, and math concepts as
necessary skills to solve problems within their project work. The environment is considered a
“third teacher” with space and materials beautifully designed to provoke thinking and hands-on
learning. Time is valued as an opportunity for children to become deeply involved in their
learning. Children are encouraged to express their ideas and their learning is made visible in a
multitude of ways. Reggio educators refer to this as the “100 languages.” It includes writing,
drawing, music, dance, clay, wire, light, drama, and more. Teachers are co-learners; researchers
who observe, record, study, and document each child’s thinking and learning. Detailed
documentation guides and extends the work of the children. Family involvement is vital to the
success of the Reggio Approach. The underlying principle is one of relationships: relationships
between families, teachers, school, and the community; between the child and other children;
between children and the environment, the materials and their work. And most importantly, the
relationship between the children and the research-based knowledge we have of who they are
and how they learn and the importance of hands-on explorations, socialization, and play.

What makes the Reggio Approach the best and only choice for early childhood
education? Why use this approach for preschool, kindergarten, and early elementary grades? It is
an informed decision we make due to our uncompromising responsibility to immerse our
children in rich educational experiences of curiosity, inquiry, and investigation while
continuously protecting their right to learn as children do—through play and discovery. It is a
choice we must make.

Yet, one additional reason must be considered: It is what our children would choose. It is an educational approach that honors who they are as brilliant learners; yet, still values them as young children. It respects the sanctity of childhood while encouraging the amazing potential within each one of them. Most importantly, it provides our children a voice—an opportunity to express what interests them, to discover who they are as learners, how they are smart, and how best to demonstrate their understandings.

The Reggio Approach is exactly what the early childhood years should look, feel, and
sound like for our children. In the words of Malaguzzi: "What we want to do is activate within children the desire and will and great pleasure that come from being the authors of their own learning" (p.55).

Malaguzzi,L. (1994). Your image of the child: Where teaching begins. Child Care Information Exchange, 96, 53-57.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Superintendent's Thoughts to Students and the Community on the M-STEP

Thoughts on M-STEP, by Rod Rock, Superintendent of Schools

As your superintendent, I work each day to fulfill the mission of the Clarkston Community Schools: to cultivate thinkers, learners, and positive contributors to a global society. As I encounter requirements and circumstances that conflict with our mission, I am compelled to call them into question. With that in mind, I am sharing with you some opinions that I hold relative to the State’s M-Step assessment, which are my own and not necessarily those of the Clarkston Community Schools.

Immediately upon our return from Spring Break, the Clarkston Community Schools, along with every other school district in Michigan, will begin administration in our elementary, middle, junior high, and high schools of the state of Michigan’s M-Step Assessment .

For our students, I have three words to share with you regarding this test: Do your best. That’s all there is to it. There’s no reason to be stressed or to worry about this test. No matter what happens--if computers do not work perfectly, if you feel rushed, if you are unsure of answer--just do your best. You have worked hard in school. Your teachers have prepared you. You are ready. Do your best. That is it.

For us as a community of educators, parents, and citizens, I have one word for you: Why. This test, in my opinion, is not ready for our students. No matter how much time we have put into preparation, the state often cannot answer our questions relative to the assessment, regularly releases new software, and often issues new requirements. The test was supposed to be computer adaptive, adjusting according to how students answer questions, and it is not. The data were supposed to be available to us in a timely manner in order to affect our instruction, and they are not. Our principals and teachers have spent countless hours away from their classrooms preparing for a test that is not yet ready for kids. We will spend thousands of dollars in substitute teaching costs to proctor these tests. Our students in computer-related classes for the duration of the school year will have very limited access to course content due to the technological requirements of the assessments and the limited number of computers in our district. Our students who struggle most will lose invaluable support time due to the demands the tests placed upon our teachers. All of our students will lose out on content time due to the length of the tests.

It is not okay with me that our state is requiring us to disrupt school in this way in order to test our students. The State PTA recently passed an emergency resolution, as petitioned by the the Clarkston PTA Council, calling for the cessation of this test; that results not be used to limit financial resources to schools; and that future tests include flexible, localized options already in place. I am hopeful that parents will become aware of how much time, how many resources, and how much of a disruption this test will cause and will ask, Why?

Thank you for allowing me to share my opinion with you.