Best School In The Universe
It's Never Too Late To Learn
When we first opened the doors to Vista Visions Academy three years ago I believe we attracted students who were looking for an alternative to the traditional way to do school, but the students who were enrolling did not have the skills or mindset to learn and work independently. Many of our high school students were failing courses by mid-semester because they simply not doing their work. I believe these students did not come to us prepared to manage their time independently, and many were not prepared for the rigor that our program offered. At mid-semester we realized we had a problem on our hands, and the high school team met to discuss our approach. We decided to implement the Incomplete rule. If a student was failing a course because they were not completing the work, they received an Incomplete on their report card and had the opportunity to go back and complete their work so that they could earn the credits and a grade. We were excited to be on the same page, as a team, with the idea that we didn't want students to fail. Unfortunately that approach didn't work well for the students we had enrolled that year. It seems the 'I' on their report card didn't convey any sense of urgency. Our students were not going back to complete the work, and the 'I's were remaining. For second semester we changed the policy and told students they would receive the 'F' on their report card if they did not complete the course, but that if they did work with their teachers to complete and revise work to meet competency, we could issue a Change of Mark. That 'F' on their report cards did motivate them, and we did see more course completion as a result, but we still had too many students failing. By the end of the school year when we looked at the data, we knew we had to do something different.
We did a couple of things. First, several teachers committed to writing a course over the summer titled Supporting Student Success (S Cubed). This course would be available on our LMS (Haiku) and students would meet Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9-12 in that class. The class was designed so that the first hour was dedicated to working on modules within the course that introduced the concepts of blended and online learning norms, how to use Haiku, time management, study skills,literacy skills, etc. After a short break students would then go back to the class to work on their individual course work, with a teacher available for support and assistance. We also designed the master schedule to add extra math and writing tutorials so that students can come in to receive the extra help that they need. We also had conversations about how each individual teacher could modify the curriculum as needed to meet individual student needs, and in some severe cases, several teachers have done just that- with encouraging results in the academic and emotional well being of the students.
This year we are seeing much more achievement and success from our students. We are assigning far fewer F's, and the academic culture among students has shifted . There is a more serious tone established on campus, and a genuine, mature camaraderie exists between the high school students and faculty. From a leadership standpoint I think that the decisions that were made along the way were the right ones, as we learned a lot as the school culture emerged and developed. We have learned to meet students where they are, and go from there. I do believe that it is never too late to learn. I do believe in competency-based education. As teachers we are charged with many duties, and we have to remember that we are dealing with young people. They are learning. They will make mistakes. I think we are the ones who will make the mistakes if we see our jobs as educators as simply rule and policy enforcers. I know why the rules are there. We are trying to maintain order and teach basic good behavior and respect. That is great. But it is not the POINT of education. When we have students who have trouble staying within our set path, and they wander off or stop walking altogether, we have to offer them some other alternatives. We have to show them another path. It's the only way they will see possibility. People grow and mature at different rates. People learn life lessons at different times and for different reasons. We need to offer our empathy, wisdom and life knowledge to help these young people see that it is never too late to learn. Sometimes, as teachers, we are teaching students the Pythagorean Theorem or thesis statements, and sometimes we are teaching them that we care and that Life offers second chances or alternative paths.
I don't know what I can actually put in place at my school site that will address the idea of the Never Too Late To Learn concept this semester, but I have some ideas. I'd like to start a peer tutoring program so that students can get together to help each other and to study. I don't know if we have the budget for it, but I'd also like to start an AVID program at our site and have tutors from Cal State San Marcos come to our site to work with students. I'd like to revisit the idea of personalizing the curriculum for students as needed so that it becomes part of the toolbox for all teachers. Another thing that I think we will be ready to put in place for next school year is standards-based grading. If we are truly moving to mastery-based courses, it shouldn't be about points and seat time, it should be about competencies and standards met. I can commit to making this concept an agenda item at staff meetings this semester so that we can implement it as a school for next school year. I feel this is within my sphere of influence because we have talked about it as a staff for awhile now, and I feel that we are ready to tackle that endeavor.
I am proud to work at a school with empathetic, innovative, and forward-thinking admin, teachers, and staff. It makes me feel like anything is possible. I know we all have our students' best interests at heart, and we want to see them succeed. I can honestly say that the high school team I work with will have honest, non-egocentric conversations about what is good for kids. I feel so fortunate to work with these people.
My boys have always looked at me very strangely when I've told them that "words have power." When they were younger I know they often have thought I was silly. "Words are just words, Mom." But I know that now, as they are older, they are grasping what I have meant all of these years. They will tell you that I patiently INSIST that in our family, we will Do No Harm, and that we will treat each other with respect. For some reason young siblings often feel they can treat their siblings as second class citizens, especially in the way they talk to each other. My boys will tell you that I have NEVER tolerated that. I tell them that there are plenty of people in the world who might criticize them or worse, and that it WILL NOT begin within our family. I work hard at keeping respect and every person's right to be who they are, front and center in our family. My boys are starting to understand that more and more, and my heart is happy these days as I see them inviting each other into their activities and circles lately. Truly happy.
School has the potential to play a vital role in a student's agency and identity. In an ideal world, our students would get all that they need to flesh out their identity and sense of agency at home. School would be the icing on the cake of agency and identity. But we all know that not all homes have the capacity to help build positive identity and agency. We also know that the social realm offers things to our identities and our sense of agency that even our families can't offer. A student's experience in school can do much to validate (or hinder) a student's sense of identity and agency. A mentor's encouraging words, a fellow student's compliment or advice, the ability to grow trust between oneself and another human being outside of the family- all of these things have the potential to produce amazing self-awareness and a knowing of who one truly is. Many times we need to see ourselves through the eyes of others to experience that kind of affirmative validation.
I am personally a VERY sensitive and empathic person, so I am very aware of my words and how they can potentially affect others. That doesn't mean that I don't slip up sometimes and say the wrong things, but I have a highly-attuned word radar most times, whether I am talking with my child, my spouse, my parents, friends, colleagues, or students. I have been teaching for a long time though, and I know many teachers who aren't aware of how their words affect others. I have experienced times where a student has walked into a room and heard a teacher saying very unkind things regarding that student's abilities and intelligence- in a very insulting, and even mocking, manner. Those times are even painful for me to remember, as I spent time comforting those students. The difficult part of that, is that as teachers, we have a responsibility. As teachers we hold vulnerable portions of students in our presence. Students look up to us. They trust us. They hope we see the good in them, they hope we believe in them, and they hope we see their talents. They may never tell us that, but deep down they hope that. And for a student to walk in unexpectedly and hear their teacher talking that way about them... well, there are no words to describe the look that crosses their faces. It hurts them immeasurably. So, Yes, school potentially plays a vital role in a student's identity and agency.
As a school leader (whether in title or simply in action) I definitely believe it in my sphere of influence to demonstrate and encourage Choice Words on our campus and anywhere within our school district. I think there are many things I could do on my school campus that would help to create a culture of using Choice Words. I could seek to make Choice Words a pillar on our campus so that as an entire school we could address it - teachers and students alike. If I wanted to just begin with the staff, I could imagine dedicating part of a staff meeting to the concept of Choice Words. I would begin with a video that would create impact, and let that flow into discussions about the power of words, and our care, as teachers, in using them carefully. Probably the most powerful thing I could do, though, is to overtly and constantly model Choice Words in my everyday practice.
Some things I can commit to doing this semester that will make my school choose words wisely:
1. I will model Choice Words as I talk with colleagues, students, and parents.
2. I will overtly talk about Mindset with students. For example, when they say, "I'm not good at writing essays." I will help them re-word that sentence to let them know that their writing abilities are a work in progress on the road to becoming spectacular- even if they'll only accept the word "yet" on the end of their original sentence.
3. I will add an assignment into my class that deals with the concept of mindset so that students can read a bit more about it- and about the power of words- and write about it as well. Then I can share that with my colleagues so that we talk about the topic.
4. I will add Choice Words to a high school advisory topic this semester - including a video, peer discussions, and personal writing. I will approach the K-8 teachers with the idea of teaching the concept of Choice Words and having students create Choice Words posters to post around school.
5. When I hear "un-choice" words between students on campus I will step in in a friendly way to assist in putting a positive spin on the situation with Choice Words, and helping the students do the same.
Pillar 2: Do no harm
When it comes to the concept of Do No Harm, I believe that is exactly what all educators and parents should do: No Harm. I don't take that lightly. It is just part of my being. As I stopped to consider why I have always felt this way, I realized that often as a child I felt "unheard" by my father. Don't get me wrong- my dad is a good guy, and we are really close. But he was raised in a time when an adult told a child, "Because I said so!" and that's what he told me often when I was a child and asked, "why?" I grew up essentially feeling that I didn't really have a voice or that my opinion didn't matter- that I didn't, or wasn't able to, contribute anything to the adult world. When I became a parent I took a very different approach, and I know my father has often thought I was crazy in my approach to parenting (lol!)- and that's ok :) When my children ask, "Why?", nine times out of ten I will explain why. I encourage the "Why's." I feel that children are learning from the adult models in their lives, and if my children trust me enough to ask why, I am going to take the time to explain why.... even if I'm tired, or impatient, or if I DON'T KNOW why. I never wanted my children to obey because they were afraid of consequences, I wanted them to obey because they understood that doing so was the right thing to do, for reasons that I would inevitably explain... because they would inevitably ask why :)
As an educator I take the exact same approach. I want to get to know each one of my students so that I get to know what he or she knows of the world, and what he or she has come to expect. When a student's approach to something doesn't work for me, or is disrespectful in any way, I assume he or she doesn't realize that, and I take the time to explain my point of view, with examples I think he or she will understand. I do my best to not lay guilt, but to encourage something different next time. This approach has never failed me. Some students take longer than others to come around, but eventually they do. I loved this quote from this week's Culture screencast by Dr. Pumpian: "What do kids learn from our reactions to their reactions?" I can remember when I was a child, if I ever did anything clumsy, like spill my glass of milk at the dinner table, my father would (sorry Dad) FREAK OUT! (We laugh about this now, by the way). What I learned from his reactions is that if I wasn't perfect, it would cause him to FREAK OUT. Needless to say, that left such a strong imprint on my psyche, that I have the opposite reaction when my children inevitably spill their almond milk at the table. I don't freak out. I tell them it's ok, to grab a towel and help clean it up, and to be careful next time. I don't mean to sound harsh toward my father. I turned out more than fine, and we have a close relationship. He knows he was like that, and my brother and I tease him about it now that we are adults. But we are shaped by our experiences, and truly, my upbringing has shaped the type of parent and teacher I have become.
In thinking about my future sphere of influence as a school leader, it is difficult to imagine how I would approach discipline and consequences on our campus and in staff development. I know that usually a school leader inherits a school with a school culture in place. There will be teachers in all phases of their careers, so it will take a certain amount of education and finesse to assess the inherited culture and get everyone on the same page with my beliefs regarding the principle of Do No Harm. I imagine that I would definitely model my philosophy in how I deal with children who break rules. I would try to work into our policies and procedures the teaching to students of what is acceptable behavior and what is not, and WHY. I would train my immediate admin staff in that philosophy and those methods, and then I would work to create staff development that would help to create a school culture of Empathy and Do No Harm. I would also work to bring student programs to our campus that help to train and educate students in how to handle and dissolve conflicts in a way that assist them in learning to Do No Harm.
At my school site, Vista Visions Academy, I think it is fair to say that we embrace the philosophy of Do No Harm wholeheartedly. We have a small staff who really know each other and have come to care about each other, our school, and our students. We are still working on uniting as one staff/one school, but we really do have the core philosophy of Do No Harm at the heart of our school. Discipline issues are a true rarity at our site, and when anything serious has ever occurred, it has really affected everyone, and been dealt with in a caring and professional way.
This semester I can commit to the following things:
Vista Visions Academy is a unique school that is easing through an identity crisis. My principal would agree. We have been open for only three years, and we have undergone many changes from the moment we opened. We have been learning who we are as a school and redefining ourselves since we opened our doors, and we have had three principals in three years. I know it doesn't sound like ideal conditions, but I promise you that we are on the right track. You see, our unique site has this amazing staff that is coming together to #schooldifferently. Schooling differently requires change... and we all know that change isn't often comfortable. What I can tell you about how we welcome is that we do... Welcome. We welcome inquiry. We welcome families. We welcome rigor. We welcome fun. We welcome music. We WELCOME technology and CREATIVITY. In our unique setting with our unique schedule, we welcome students to come as they are. We welcome conversation above all. I have the unreal opportunity to meet one-on-one with my high school English students and have CONVERSATIONS with them! For 30 minutes! ABOUT THEIR WORK!! We welcome feedback. We welcome community service. We welcome questions. We welcome suggestions. I am honestly humbled daily by the people I am surrounded with. I KNOW that our students feel welcome. I'm pretty positive our parents feel welcome.
If I had to pick one area to work on in terms of WELCOME- it would be in helping our teachers and staff feel united as one. It may not be clear, but a big picture missing from this description I have given is that our amazing school, which is K-12, is made up of staff members from two separate schools: one was K-8, and the other was 9-12. When the district brought us together to join as one school, we all just got along and opened a school. But we weren't exactly prepared to THINK like one school. For the first two-and-a-half years we operated like two schools under the same roof. It has taken a period of adjustment and a very forward-thinking principal to come on board this year to finally get us aligned on the same train... beginning to think like one school. Just this month I began to see this common thread that is weaving itself from Kindergarten all the way through 12th grade. Our philosophies and pedagogies are beginning to align. It is very exciting.
So, what I can do to keep this moving in the right direction is to help foster the practice of a united staff. I plan to do this by:
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.