Sunday, November 26, 2006

Transparency and community

Photo by Andrew Councill for The New York Times

The New York Times recently published an interesting article by Diana Jean Schemo about college presidents who blog. The articles lead was about Patricia A. McGuire, the president of Trinity University in Washington, D.C., who's pictured above. Seems Dr. McGuire has taken to blogging, running contrary to some pundits' counsel.

Veterans of campus public relations disasters warn that presidents blog at their peril; "an insane thing to do" is how Raymond Cotton, a lawyer who advises universities and their presidents in contract negotiations, describes it. But these presidents say blogs make their campuses seem cool and open a direct line, more or less, to students, alumni and the public.

"When I first started learning about blogs, I said, 'Well, here I like to discourse on issues of the day, connect with the campus community,'" recalled Dr. McGuire, who said she wrote all her own entries. "Here’s a way I can talk a couple of times a week to everybody."

And so she does: about Representative Nancy Pelosi, class of 1962, who will be the first female speaker of the House; about election results; about breaking ground for a memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and about lesbian alumnae and the Roman Catholic Church, sensitive ground for a Catholic undergraduate college serving mostly minority and low-income women.
Insane or not, I believe blogging can very much be the right thing to do. For one thing, it gives the leader a chance to lead, to paint the vision, to provide guidance and direction, to help propel the learning community in the right direction.

Sure, blogging has its pitfalls, but I believe the possibilities for good far outweigh any chance of stumbling.

While Ms. Schemo notes that the presidents she spoke with think "blogs make their campuses seem cool and open a direct line, more or less, to students, alumni and the public," I'd go a step or two farther. Blogs are about transparency; blogs are about leadership. Blogs are about transparency in leadership.

I'd also say that Dr. McGuire shows how to do it.

Some would say that even Dr. McGuire's blog isn't truely a blog, but more of a PR outlet; one mid-west blogger goes so far as to say that posting only once or twice a week doesn't make a blog. Well, if that's the case, right now, you're not reading a blog.

I've only found one head of an independent school who blogs: Malcolm Gauld at Hyde Schools. My only complaint with Malcom's blog is that it doesn't have an RSS feed. ;-)

Are there other schools that promote blogs from senior leaders? While plenty of schools have letters posted on their school websites or chapel sermons or other opportunities of communication, only blogs provide a way to generate two-way communication and can help build community.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

He left his common sense at home

I'm amazed at this story. Seems a middle school science teacher had students use the same lancet to prick their fingers to draw blood to examine under microscopes.
Nearly two dozen students at a middle school in Redwood City will have to undergo blood tests Tuesday for Hepatitis and the AIDS virus because of a science experiment that should never have taken place.

The health department is meeting with worried parents Monday night.

A substitute teacher let kids use the same needle to pierce their fingers to draw blood to look at it under a microscope. They should have swabbed their mouths instead.
Here's a reason for small, flexible schools. When I taught, we never had substitutes; if a teacher had to miss, we covered, either taking classes (classes which were not dissimilar from what we were already teaching) or doubling-up for something unique or providing a library/research assignment. We'd never have a substitute who could mess things up like this.

We were each capable of messing things up without help from the outside. ;-)

Yes, that was a feeble attempt at humor.

Noted one student: It looked strange. Shouldn't he at least clean it or something? Speak up, young lady, speak up. Perhaps we need to focus on critical thinking, common sense, and speaking-truth-to-power in our curricula...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What is important?

I've been reading Alfie Kohn's What Does it Mean to Be Well-Educated?: And Other Essays on Standards, Grading, and other Follies. I've been reading it not for class or because someone recommended it; I've been reading it because it's been sitting on my shelf looking as if it wanted to be read. This is an awesome read. Somehow, I'd missed Kohn in my earlier educational readings which focused on two other power houses, Howard Gardner and Ted Sizer. My new triumvirate: Kohn, Sizer, & Gardner.

Gardner is usually known for his research and writings on multiple intelligences; Sizer is best known for his Coalition for Essential Schools and his belief that schools "should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well." Kohn sees "pervasive standardized testing and excessive homework" as diluting education; we're creating systems that push our students away from what is truly important.

And then, today, in the Washington Post, I came across this wonderful op/ed piece, Today I Will Buck Standardized Objectives, by Crissie Traugott, a fifth-grade teacher, in Frederick County, MD. She writes,
Many teachers are required to post their classroom objectives daily. In this fresh culture of "accountability," we are required to publicly defend what we are teaching and why it's important. This amuses me because I imagine other professions having to do this.

Today patients will receive an immunization in order to fight disease.

Today riders will travel in my cab in order to reach a chosen destination.

Today in class, my curriculum-based objectives could have shared valuable chalkboard real estate with the following:

Today students will practice lockdown procedures in order to avoid violent intruders in our school.

Today students will work in teams in order to see that outstanding work can be produced with cooperation and dedication.

Today students will enjoy a book for reasons other than taking a test in March.

Today students will enjoy an impromptu lesson about spiders in order to debunk the myth that they are brain-eating creatures running under Zach's desk.

You certainly won't find these objectives tested in the spring; however, my students' development was unmistakably enriched by these moments. Lesson plans are tentative and fickle, as the teaching profession is an unpredictable roller-coaster ride filled with steep climbs, unexpected loops and breathtaking drops.

One thing is for certain, though: I cherish every minute of the ride.
I wonder how she can take those moments when those moments clearly don't further the goals of her school. And I wonder what we are doing to education in America. Our public schools are so concerned about scores on standardized tests, scores that tell us not much more, perhaps, than the socio-economic background of the students and how well they take multiple choice, standardized tests.

Do these assessments tell us how much students love and live, how much students incorporate learning into their lives and have enthusiasm for learning, how much mastery students show over real and applied knowledge, or how much intellectual inquiry students demonstrate? No, not at all.

And for this reason, and many more, I choose to not teach in a public school, a school where No Child Left Behind and standardized test scores drive every minute, where posting daily objectives is mandatory, where good teaching is killed under the guise of higher standards.

No, give me a school that thrives on truly engaging students, truly encouraging students to become life long learners, and truly assessing students through a robust system of demonstration, exhibition, and assessment. Please, please, please, give me such a school.

For your reading pleasure, check out books by Alfie Kohn, Ted Sizer, and Howard Gardner, if you haven't already.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Rejection: This is how it ought to be done

I found the following rejection letter online and thought it was just too funny to pass up:
Herbert A. Millington
Chair - Search Committee
412A Clarkson Hall
Whitson University
College Hill, MA 34109

Dear Professor Millington,

Thank you for your letter of March 16. After careful consideration, I regret to inform you that I am unable to accept your refusal to offer me an assistant professor position in your department.

This year I have been particularly fortunate in receiving an unusually large number of rejection letters. With such a varied and promising field of candidates, it is impossible for me to accept all refusals.

Despite Whitson's outstanding qualifications and previous experience in rejecting applicants, I find that your rejection does not meet my needs at this time. Therefore, I will assume the position of assistant professor in your department this August. I look forward to seeing you then.

Best of luck in rejecting future applicants.


Chris L. Jensen
I think it's awesome. I'll have to use it... Mr. Jensen's approach is certainly better than some of my whining last February. Mr. Jensen's approach is straight-forward and precise. I like it. Best of luck in rejecting future applicants. You don't say...

Monday, November 06, 2006

An early jump on the process

Well, I'm off to a good and early jump on the search process. I've sent electronic letters to the head of every school that meets my criteria. Responses have begun to trickle in; no one, of course, has a good sense yet of what their needs for next year will be. The chase begins...

Saturday, November 04, 2006

How we learn; how we teach

I spend a little time every day surfing the web for information about the things that interest me. I use Bloglines and Google Reader to help me sort through the hundreds of news, blog, website, and picture posts. I like Bloglines better than the Google Reader, but I use both as each has certain good characteristics.

Yesterday, I read this post on Weblogg-ed about learning and the use of new technologies. Will Richardson wrote
I’ve been growing more frustrated lately and I’m feeling more pessimistic about the prospects for any serious change in how we as an education system see teaching and learning, and I think I’ve figured out why. I hate to generalize, but the thing that seems to be missing from most of my conversations with classroom teachers and administrators is a willingness to even try to re-envision their own learning, not just their students. Many will say that they understand to varying degrees the changes that are occurring, that the Web is in many ways rewriting the rules of communication and socialization, that the world our students enter when they leave us will be much different from the ones we ourselves were prepared for. But it feels like there is this unspoken belief among most that we can deal with these changes without changing ourselves. And that’s is a huge problem.

Lots of teachers I talk to want blogs and podcasts and wikis. Without question, there are thousands of teachers, tens of thousands in fact, who are already using the tools with their students. I see new examples every day. But I’m still bothered by the fact that very, very rarely do I see new pedagogies to go along with them that prepare students for the creation of their own learning networks. That allow them to take some ownership (or at least envision the possibility of it) over their learning. That help them learn self-direction and get them to stop waiting for someone else to initiate the learning. And even rarer is to find one of those teachers exploring his or her own learning through the tools.
This was all interesting, and important, but it was the next paragraph that struck me:
More than anything else, I think, teaching is modeling. As a writing teacher, I wrote with my students. As a journalism teacher, I wrote for publication with my students. As a literature teacher, I practiced and modeled reading for my students. Modeling is teaching, and never has that been made more apparent to me than when my own children act out and reflect my own bad behavior back to me. (It happens more than I like to admit.) My own kids, it has become clear, learn less when I talk, more when I do. And so it is with me.
Teaching is modeling. Much like Ted Sizer's "teacher as coach" metaphor, but I like Richardson's image as it dictates that the teacher do. In the classroom, we must model all the behaviors we want our students to adopt, and appropriate use of technology is one of those things we must model.

Another notion that grabs me about this post is that as a teacher, I must always be learning and must be always on the lookout for new, innovative, and better ways of doing things. And, that goes for parenting, too. Actually, I think that goes for life in general.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Money isn't everything: Do what you love and the money will follow

roedean school
Originally uploaded by featherboa.
This morning, I heard from an old Trinity classmate who is an administrator at a small boarding school. She provided me with some great information and insight, and re-affirmed for me that I'm making the right move. Not like I've had any doubts, but she reminded me why I'm doing this: to make a difference in students' lives. She had this great image of working with students and the type of students she wanted to work with as she was looking, so many years ago. She wrote that she "could really HELP struggling, disenfranchised students instead of just dusting them off and sending them on to Harvard." I love it: "instead of just dusting them off and sending them on." Indeed.

She also had this to say about my candidacy with so many years outside of the independent school world:
One thing that always makes me hesitate is looking to try to hire someone who has been in the public sector for a number of years. Small, young schools like mine simply can't offer salaries that are attractive enough to candidates wishing to more out of the public sector to private school. Obviously, there are plenty of well-to-do schools out there for whom salary figures are not a concern, but you will want to perhaps address the knowledge that you know what you're looking at salary-wise, so that schools without a major hiring budget will overlook fears that they would eventually lose you because of salary limits, and instead can focus on your candidacy with a real idea that they could make you an attractive enough offer to actually get you to sign on.
Yes, that could be a concern. I'm a federal servant and, yes, it's decent middle income money (as a GS-12 the range is $62,291to $80,975), and, yes, I know that I'm not going to make that sort of money at a boarding school. I know I'm going to take a salary cut. I also know there many benefits of working in a boarding school -- room & board... free tuition for children -- that make working in a boarding school much more attractive than at first blush.

So, yes, I'd like to make a living wage, and I'd like to be remunerated for a my experience and education, but I know my take home pay is going to be severely reduced. That comes with the territory. Money isn't everything, though. I'm mature enough to realize that.

So, dear hiring authorities, don't fret about the money. I'm not. And, I'm sure we can work it out. I'm sure nearly any school can make an attractive enough offer to actually get me to sign on...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"Position Wanted" ad

Over at, Robert Kennedy hosts a "positions wanted" page. I'm on top:
Administrator. Boarding school only. English/history. Seasoned, degreed (Ed.D. ABD, M.A., M.Ed., B.A.) professional seeks faculty or admin position in small boarding school. Additional interest in creative writing, theatre & lacrosse. Proven leader developer.
I wonder who actually scans his page. What can be said in 250 characters or less?