Archive for the ‘Students’ Category

Underdogs

June 1, 2009

I was given the honor of speaking to the most recent graduates from St. Vrain's Adult Education school on May 22.  Here is the text of my remarks.

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It is a great privilege for me to be here with you tonight to witness this milestone in your life – to witness your accomplishment of reaching graduation.

I want to thank Mary Willoughby for inviting me to be here tonight.  I want to say congratulations, too, to all of the families who are here.  I know from personal experience that very few of us achieve a milestone like this on our own.  Teachers and family provide us with immeasurable support.

My wife and I supported each other as we completed our educations.  First, she worked while I finished school and then we traded roles.  I worked while she finished school. 

So, I would like to say thank you to the staff at Adult Ed and to the parents, spouses, significant others and friends who are here.

I want to talk for a very few minutes about a subject that is not often mentioned at graduation ceremonies.  I want to speak on the subject of Underdogs – people and groups who find a way to be successful even when the odds are against them.

Some, perhaps many of us on this stage have felt like an underdog at one time or another in our lives.  I know that I have had that feeling.

I never felt more like an underdog than when I graduated from high school and went off to college.

I grew up in a small town.  There were barely 1500 people in my town.  I had 40 in my graduating class from high school.  About the same size as your class.

When I went to college, there were more people living in my dormitory than lived in my entire town.  I went to my first class – a required class for freshman in a giant lecture hall.  There may have been more students in that one lecture hall than there were students in grades K – 12 where I had come from.

I didn’t know if I could do this.  I didn’t know if I could survive at a big University.

I became even more intimidated when I heard my college classmates talk about all the math and science classes they had taken in high school.

When I was a senior in high school, my science teacher took a new job the 2nd week of school.  My school wasn’t able to recruit a new teacher.  That was the end of science for me.

I wasn’t sure how I would be able to keep up in college.  I went to sleep feeling homesick most nights my first semester.

But, I had learned something growing up in my small town that would help get through college and succeed I had learned to work hard.  I’ve had jobs since I was 10 years old.  That was a gift my parents gave me.  It was a gift my wife’s parents gave her.  They made us work.

I learned that hard work can make up for a lot.  And the best thing is, we get to decide how hard we want to work.

I read a magazine article recently by a person named Malcolm Gladwell.  The whole article was about How Do Underdogs Win?  How does David beat Goliath?

Gladwell says that there are three reasons that Underdogs are successful.

1.       They work harder than most people are willing to work.

2.       They are willing to do things other people won’t do.  Successful underdogs don’t care if people say “you’re not cool.”

3.       Successful underdogs keep getting up on their feet when they get knocked down.  They don’t give up.

I want to tell you about the janitor at my high school.  Mr. Bray.

Mr. Bray had a big family.  He had five or six or seven children.  I don’t remember exactly how many.  Mr. Bray had a dream.  He wanted his family to have a house where every one of his kids could have their own bedroom.  Throw in a family room and a dining room – that’s a big house.

It’s hard to find a house like that on a janitor’s salary in a small town.  But, that was Mr. Bray’s dream.  He wasn’t going to be stopped by lack of money.

From the time I was about five or six, we would see Mr. Bray at different places around town – after school, on weekends and all through the summer.  Mr. Bray would tear down abandon buildings in town.  He would work out an arrangement with the property owner.  He would tear down their old building if he could keep the wood and bricks and pipes.

I remember people around town talking about Mr. Bray.  They would say things like, “I can’t believe he spends so much time tearing down buildings.”

I’m ashamed to say we kids weren’t so kind.  We said the things kids say before we know better. “There’s Mr. Bray tearing down another building.  What a dork.”

Mr. Bray didn’t care what people in town said about him.  He had a dream.  He was going to make it come true.

Mr. Bray carried himself with pride and dignity everywhere he went.  When he completed a demolition job.  The lot left behind was spic and span.  Mr. Bray did things right.

And, by the time I was a freshman in high school… Mr. Bray had built one of the biggest houses in town.

That’s what successful underdogs do.  They work hard.  They do things others won’t do.  They don’t worry whether or not people think they are cool.

I want to tell you one more story.  It’s from a book I’m reading with my daughter.  It’s called Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor.  It is a true story about Juan and Lupe Villasenor – two immigrants who were driven from their homes in Mexico by a revolution almost 100 years ago.  They built a successful life in the United States.  (Their son is a well known author – he wrote the book.)

Juan and Lupe did not have easy lives.  Their families were knocked down many, many times.  But, they kept getting back on their feet.

There is a scene in the book that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Juan and his family are camped outside of Ciudad Juarez.  They are hoping to cross the border into the United States.

They have nothing.  They have to pick corn out of manure to keep themselves from starving to death.  One night, after a terrible sandstorm, one of Juan’s sisters goes blind.  The family is discouraged.  They want to give up.

Juan’s mother, Dona Margarita, calls her family together.  This is a women whose lost several children; her daughter is blind; her grandchildren are crying with hunger; they have to sleep on the ground through dust storms.

With all these hardships, this is what Dona Margarita said to her family, “We must open our hearts so that we can see the possibilities in our predicament.  If we do not look for the possibilities, we have nothing.”

I can’t imagine the hardships the Villasenor family endured.  It is humbling to hear the words spoken by Dona Margarita; to hear someone who has endured so much declare We Must Find the Possibilities in our Predicament.

But, that is what successful underdogs do.  They work hard.  They do things other people say aren’t cool.  They keep getting back up on their feet when they are knocked down and they look for life’s possibilities.

That is how Dreams Come True.

You all have taken a less traditional path to graduation than people who will graduate tomorrow from traditional high schools.  Some people might consider you underdogs.

Here’s what I would say.  You already have an advantage in life that others don’t.  You know how to overcome adversity.  There’s no softness on this stage.  I’m sure of that.

You know how to work hard.  You know how to keep going when others say you aren’t cool.  And, you know how to pick yourself up when you get knocked down.

You can accomplish your dreams if you keep doing what you’ve done to reach this place tonight.

Congratulations.

Thank you again for giving me the privilege of witnessing what you’ve accomplished.

St. Vrain Student Technology Fair

February 11, 2009

My daughter Ada Grace and I had a great time at the St. Vrain Student Technology Fair this past weekend.  She had showing me the work that she and her classmates in the Central Elementary 1st Grade did for the fair. http://twitpic.com/1dltc

A significant number of people put in a significant number of hours to make this event possible.  Thank You!!  The Tech Fair was featured in a recent School Library Journal article. http://tinyurl.com/aqu7fs

Congratulations to Frederick High School for being named Grand Champion. 

Trojan Alumni Club

July 11, 2008

I want to share some information I received about the new Trojan Alumni Club.


The Trojan Alumni Club has been started to help increase the support for Longmont High classrooms and class projects as well as unite alumni in common causes and fun. Other schools in the area have 20 times the support from alumni that Longmont High has and Longmont High has 104 years of graduates and more than 20,000 living alums. The reason – we believe it is because no one asked for the assistance and made it easy to participate in the Trojan Alumni Club. Now it is easy.


 


If you are an LHS Alumni, please take a few minutes to go to www.trojanalumni.com  and hopefully add your name and $20 annually to the list of members.  Just use the Pay Pal button on the donate page or follow directions on that page – please be sure to include your graduation year.  If we can get 500 alums to contribute annually we can quadruple what we have been able to provide for LHS classrooms. Imagine the possibilities if each of the alums found one other to support their alma mater in this easy and inexpensive way. We are offering incentives for you to find other alums to join… find 20 and get a Trojan sweatshirt, find 25 and get an activity pass to LHS, get 50 to sign up and we’ll give you a family activity pass!


 


The committee who is working on this will be made up of alumni only and you are also invited to join. The possibilities and fun are whatever the alums choose.

What’s Fair

June 6, 2008

We have friends with three young children.  The youngest of the three has a number of medical problems which require trips to see specialists, surgeries, long recovery periods and rehab.

 

This special medical treatment requires considerable sums of money and time.  The mom and her youngest child are away from home, sometimes for long stretches.  The medical bills exceed what insurance will pay not to mention the costs of travel and meals away from home.  It adds up.

 

The two older children, fortunately, are completely healthy.  There medical bills are minimal to non-existent.  Our friends are spending far more money and time to support their youngest child’s health than they do to provide for their older children’s health.

 

I remember once their oldest daughter – she must have been eight at the time – standing on our porch saying, “I don’t like how much my mom has to be gone with my brother.  It’s not fair.”  She knew her mom was doing the right thing but she also was keenly aware of her own sacrifice.  The money diverted to health care probably cost her in ways she did not know – for instance, the family had less disposable income for their older children.

 

Our friends’ experience is, perhaps, acute but not uncommon.  Most families with multiple children face situations in which they must make judgments about how best to support their children.  Often, the considered choice leads parents to spend more time and money on one child than on another.  We all learn – heck it’s common sense that even an eight year old understands – that doing the right thing does not always mean being equal in the strictest sense.

 

Now here’s the thing about our friends.  There youngest child’s health will probably never be as good as the health of the older two children.  All three of their children should have good enough health to lead good lives.  But, bottom line, their youngest child will always have some issues.  Even though they have and will spend exponentially more on the youngest child the “results” won’t be as good.

 

Every family I know would do the same thing for their children.

 

I find the experience of our friends useful when thinking about how education dollars are spent.  The reality is that it takes more money to educate some children than it takes to educate other children.  We would like to think that all children are exactly the same – and thus require the same level of support.  But, we all know that is not the real world.

 

Some children have obvious learning disabilities.  Other children’s learning needs are less obvious.  For instance, some children come from homes in which “habits of learning” are passed on intuitively from parent to child.  Other children don’t develop these “habits of learning” at home and have to play catch up at school.  This takes time and, in some instances, personal attention, which often costs money.

 

(At the other end of the spectrum, some children need special programming so they won’t be bored at school – but that will be a topic for another time.  It just occurred to me, perhaps we should criticize parents whose children are exceptionally bright because of the extra burden they place on our schools – but of course I’m just being sarcastic, which isn’t terribly helpful. )

 

Administrators at the private and parochial schools in our community are fully aware that some students require more money to educate than other students.  That is why some private school administrators discourage or prohibit students with extra learning needs from enrolling at their school.  That is why, for instance, some parochial students travel to neighboring public schools for literacy instruction.

 

I am okay with that.  If a private school isn’t up to the task of educating a child, they should be up front about it.  If a parochial school does not have the resources needed to support a child’s instructional needs, I think it is okay for the community to help out.  Some people may say, “That’s not fair.  We shouldn’t subsidize parochial school students.”  But, I think we do what is best for the children of our community – we can’t let rivalries take our eye off of the children.

 

Here’s another reality.  We will invest more money in some students than we do in others and yet their academic performance will never match that of many of their classmates.  Just like our friends and their three children.  They spend more money on one child’s health even though his health will never be as good as his siblings.

 

But, I believe we have an obligation to prepare as many students as possible to be self-sufficient and contributing members to our communities – even if they never make it to the right side of the bell curve.  And, the reality is that there will always, by definition, be a right and left side of the bell curve.  Or, put another way, we have an obligation to help children reach their potential no matter what that potential is.

 

These are the types of choices we face as a community and as a school district.  We must make choices about what’s fair.  It would be nice if these types of choices were as simplistic as “everyone gets exactly the same.”  But, that isn’t the real world.  Children’s educational needs are no different than their health needs.  They vary.  And, sometimes, some kids need extra time, attention and resources.

 

Making judgments about how to distribute resources to meet the needs of 24,000 students can be clumsy at times.  We should always investigate ways to improve the system.  For instance, the Poudre (Ft. Collins) school district uses a formula for student needs.  Whatever system we use, common sense dictates that a fair distribution of resources is unlikely to be exactly equal.

Conversation Themes – Teachers

May 2, 2008

Yesterday, I posted themes from conversations with parents.  Today, I am posting themes from my conversations with teachers.

I would encourage readers to comment.  Which of these themes resonate with you most?  Which of these themes do not resonate?  Why?  What would you add to the list?

If you are a teacher who took part in these conversations, is there something I missed or got wrong?

The overarching question I posed was: As a school district, how might we move closer toward our potential?Top of Form

Over arching theme:

Teachers are proud of what they are able to accomplish given the resources they have to work with.  They are concerned about the present as well as the future.

Most commonly mentioned issues:

Class Size (instruction time).  Teachers are extremely concerned on the impact of larger class sizes.  They list a number of ways in which larger class sizes will negatively impact their abilities to serve students.  Bottom line:  Teachers suggest that it is structurally not possible to close the achievement gap or stretch the high performers.  In effect, teachers say they are forced to choose between students.

High school teachers indicate that the total number of students they have in their combined sections makes it extremely difficult to have meaningful relationships with their students.

Also, teachers say they are, in essence, being asked to do more work in the same amount of time.

Technology.  Technology is an important issue to middle and high school teachers (it was not mentioned as often by elementary school teachers).  As one high school teacher said, “We are desperate for technology.”  There also are concerns about how difficult it is to utilize existing technology.

High school teachers, in particular, are able to enumerate many ways they would use smart board technology.  However, as Math teachers said at the last board meeting, laptops and projectors are the first priority.

Student Remediation.  Teachers express concern about the number of students who arrive unprepared for their grade level.  This concern is expressed at all grade levels.  It is most pronounced at the middle and high school levels.

Student Support.  Teachers are concerned about cutbacks in and/or the limited number of positions such as literacy teachers and counselors.    Teachers say that when students are not able to receive individualized attention when they need it the classroom environment is further compromised.

Equity.  Teachers at the higher income schools indicate that their work is far easier than at lower income schools.  “It changes everything,” said one middle school teacher.  Teachers at all buildings indicated concern about equity issues.  The equity issues they described focused primarily on teaching tools (e.g. technology, extra books, etc.)

Compensation.  Many teachers made it clear that they are looking at other school districts in the area.  The gap between St. Vrain’s base pay and that of nearby school districts is getting large enough that many teachers are willing to consider a change – though that’s not necessarily their first choice.

Prep Time.  Teachers indicate that they don’t have adequate time to meet in teams (especially vertical teams) and use assessment data to guide instruction.  Given this, some teacher question the merits of the number of assessments students are required to take.  If there’s not time to use the date, the teachers don’t gain any value added.  Other teachers see the assessments as highly valuable but say they need more time to make effective use of this data.  Teachers say, consistently, that they would like more PLC time to focus on horizontal and vertical team meetings to, as one teacher said, “Figure out how to make the curriculum we’re using work for my students in my classroom.”

Teachers would like the community to be more aware that other school districts provide far more prep time to teachers than does St. Vrain.

Vision?  Teachers in four of the five schools said they are unclear on the district’s long term vision.  They indicate that they are seldom part of conversations about the direction of the school district.  At the building level, many teachers recognize that principals are consumed with daily operations and have little time for big picture thinking.  At the district level, they indicate that they are hungry for more communications.

Schools I visited after the Public Policy presentations found the meetings to be extremely helpful.  People said those types of conversations are important to have on an ongoing basis.

Communications.  Teachers want to make sure people in leadership positions are doing the work that’s needed to convey the school district’s message and needs to the community.  They are concerned the stories about the good work in schools are not getting out.  They recognize that there is an important role for them to play in helping to communicate with the community. 

St. Vrain Valley Latino Coalition-Advocacy Committee

April 24, 2008

I had the opportunity to meet with the Latino advocacy committee for a short time last week.  As a school district, we are not adequately meeting the needs of our Latino students.  The appallingly low graduation rates of Latino students are the most obvious measure of our lack of success in serving these students.  Certainly, students and families must take responsibility for their education.  The school district must make a more concerted effort, too.

The Latino Coalition-Advocacy Committee wants to work with the school district around four issues:

1.       Dropout prevention and intervention.

2.       Parent involvement and communication.

3.       Equity and representation for a multicultural community.

4.       White flight.

There is general support within our school district to address these issues.  There are some specific efforts being made.  We need to be even more specific.  General support will not lead to the concerted effort needed to make a difference.  We need to adopt specific efforts that have been tried and tested.  One such example is the Latino Education Achievement to Graduate (LEAG) program used in Grand Junction schools.  It is an area I plan to give more attention as we move toward the next school year.

Another Glimpse Into the Future… Present

April 23, 2008

I have been corresponding with a friend recently regarding online education.  There are a growing number of online education options in the state of Colorado.

Perhaps the best known in Colorado is the Colorado Virtual Academy.  Douglas County School District has an online option.  In the St. Vrain Valley School District, Carbon Valley Charter Academy has the CVA Online Program.  The St. Vrain School District also allows students to take a small number of classes online – Mandarin Chinese is one example.

There are many more examples of online programs in Colorado and across the country.

I have had many, many hours of conversations with parents and teachers about education here in the St. Vrain Valley.  People are not clamoring for online programs.  It is only a small fraction of people who raise this topic.  People do think it is important to integrate technology into instruction but people are not anxious for more online instruction programs at the k-12 level.

Having said this, I am convinced that online instruction is going to transform education as we know it today.  It holds tremendous potential to help students accelerate their learning and to leverage teacher time.  It holds the potential to reduce costs for capital infrastructure (i.e. building school buildings) because students will be able to learn anywhere.

People are not clamoring for online instruction now but they will.  People did not did people clamor for laptop computers or in-car GPS systems, either.

How quickly will demand for online instruction grow?  How quickly will it transform education as we know it?  When I think about questions like this, I’m reminded of a Bill Gates quote regarding the internet.  He remarked about a decade ago to the effect of, “All the predictions about how the internet will change the world in 5 years are overblown and all the predictions about how the internet will change the world in 10 to 15 years are understated.”

I am equally convinced that there will always be demand for physical places – school buildings – that bring together students and teachers for face-to-face interaction.  I do a good deal of professional development.  More and more of it via web and phone.  But, there is just no way to replace face-to-face interactions.

What’s more, young people need opportunities to come together with peers as part of their development process.  Young people need opportunities to escape the controlling influence of their parents so they can stretch and grow.  It is an essential part of growing up.  And, parents need time away from their kids.  I’ll let parents tell you why.

Too often we allow ourselves to get bogged down by the tyranny of the “or.”  We think the world has to be this way OR that; rather than this way AND that.

Education in the future will be “online” much of the time.

Education in the future also will continue to be a physical place.

Other school districts are ahead of St. Vrain when it comes to offering online programs.  We need to become more diligent in investigating and implementing possibilities.  The good news is that many teachers already are experimenting with the possibilities.  The time for a bold step forward is ripening.

I’m not overly concerned that we’re not doing more yet with online instruction.  But we can’t be tentative for too much longer.

We won’t move quickly enough for some people within our school district and they will go elsewhere.  Many other people we will have to cajole to move forward each step of the way.  That is a normal part of the process of change.

I am excited and uncertain about what the future holds for education.  I imagine the possibilities our children have to learn anywhere, anytime to be enthralling.  At the same time, as Joe Mehsling said to me recently, “We have no idea what we’re doing to our kids.”  That’s because we’ve never done this before.

Not every generation must deal with the transformational change that we are experiencing today.  It’s unsettling.  But isn’t that the fun of it?

Larger Class Sizes

April 21, 2008

I’ve had hundreds of hours of conversation with parents and teachers regarding education and schools.  One theme is consistent.  Parents and teachers want smaller class sizes.  We’re headed the opposite direction here in St. Vrain.  It’s a matter of economics not good pedagogy. 

We can debate at length about whether or not class size has an impact on student achievement.  If we take the time to look, we can find a study that reinforces our point of view – no matter what that point of view might be.  Here is a good summary of a range of studies.

Whether or not one can prove that class size impacts performances on tests, it does change the learning experience for students and the teaching experience for teachers – both for the worse.  Here are a few examples of the impact of larger class sizes based on my conversations with teachers over the past few weeks:

          Less differentiated instruction.  As numbers of students go up a teachers abilities to assess, discern and design tailored instruction goes down

          Easier for kids to hide.  Middle and high school students, teachers say, become increasingly proficient at hiding their weaknesses.  In larger classes, it takes longer for teachers to find the students that are making a concerted effort to hide.

          Less and less timely feedback.  As the number of students increase the time that a teacher has to provide feedback is diminished.  A teacher must grade more work in the same amount of time.  This is of particular important on written work.  I know from experience that rigorous feedback is essential to the process of becoming a better writer.  Feedback keeps students motivated, too.  In large classes, that’s less likely to happen.

          Diminished relationships.  Education gurus tend to agree that strong student-teacher (student-adult) relationships are an essential element of a quality learning experience.  There is research that suggests as human beings, we’re able to manage about 150 relationships at any given time.  We have high school teachers who are likely to have 180 students each semester.  As my personal development blog suggests, I would have a hard time remembering that many names.  How can teachers and students have a quality relationship if the teachers can’t even remember all their students’ names?

          Less rigorous parent-teacher partnerships.  A quality parent-teacher relationship takes time.  Often these relationships turn on the ability of teachers to prepare quality information about each student for parents.  As class sizes go up, the time to provide parents with quality information

I can go on but, test scores aside, I think you get the picture.

Love and Expectations

April 20, 2008

Shelby Steele once wrote:  People do well because they are loved and much is expected of them.

I love this quote.  Both as a parent and as a member of the school board, I find it a useful touchstone to inform my actions.

At a family level, love and expectations come naturally (though I, like most parents I suppose, am not always consistent at upholding high expectations).  It is more challenging, yet equally necessary, to strive to meet this standard at a community level, too.

Read Across America Day

March 3, 2008

Monday, March 3 is Read Across America Day sponsored by the National Education Association.

The day is held in conjunction with Dr. Seuss‘ birthday.  He would have been 104, yesterday, on March 2.  Like many families my family are fans of Dr. Seuss.  He has helped our children learn to read.

I read to a class of second graders (including my son) today to celebrate.  I chose one of my favorite stories, The Sneetches, a tale of the foolish costs of division within communities and learning lessons the hard way.  I had a blast.

I hope you have time to read with your children, grandchildren or children of friends today – or sometime soon.