Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What is Your School's Language?

In the past three years, since receiving a federal School Improvement Grant, Sunnyside High School has gone through a significant transformation.  Through a mutually beneficial partnership with Gonzaga University, Dr. Chuck Salina was hired as the turnaround principal.  With a laser like focus on improving attendance and graduation rates, we have charted a course that focuses on three areas; developing relational trust, providing social support, and increasing academic press.  With these three foundational pieces we have increased our attendance rate from 92% in 2009 to 95% in 2012, and our graduation rate from 49.7% to 78.4% over that same time.  The socioeconomic status of our students did not change, the teaching staff did not dramatically change, and as everyone knows the graduation requirements got more difficult over that time.  Instead, we operated under a new way of doing business. 

The staff has become galvanized by the mission, and has worked intentionally to create a culture for learning within the high school. One nonnegotiable was changing the way that we talked about each other and the way that we talked about students.  The importance of language and how we talk about each other is widely recognized as a factor in creating a culture for learning, but is typically mentioned and then quickly forget, passed over for additional attention to more concrete aspects such as instructional practices or assessment data.  It is not enough to simply recognize that language is important in creating a culture for learning within a school house; it must be something that is intentionally developed and receives consistent attention.   

Lao Tzu, writing over 2,600 years ago explains:

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character;
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

With the argument that one’s thoughts are typically the source of their destiny, not only do ones words play a very early role in that process, it is the first point where others are directly impacted.  Your words are where you first make your thinking visible to others, and therefore your first opportunity to influence others, either positively or negatively.  A teacher who sits in their classroom thinking about how much they hate going to the staff meetings isn’t going to benefit much from that meeting, but doesn’t do near the potential damage as someone who complains in the staff room about how much they hate those same meetings.  What we say about each other and our school is the foundational blocks of creating a school culture, and that culture is so incredibly important. 

Students make bad choices.  Students are not bad people.  Adults make bad choices.  Adults are not bad people.  While this may appear to be a poor lesson in semantics there is a world of difference between complaining about a dumb kid and complaining about a kid who made a dumb choice.  Our language is the first opportunity other people have in determining what we value and expect.  Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, explains the importance of language in shaping student’s mindsets.  She argues that it is imperative that teachers consistently communicate that they hold growth mindsets and equally important that formal leaders communicate they have a growth mindset towards teachers.  As informal or formal leaders it is critical that you model the importance of language and don’t allow others to slip towards negative ranting.  We made the determination that we were not going to accept our teachers speaking negatively about our students and we were going to stop talking negatively about our teachers.

I was one of the guilty ones.  I talked negatively about students due to their lack of effort, their poor attitudes, inconsistent attendance, and apparent apathy.  At times my coworkers annoyed the heck out of me, and I enjoyed quick conversation with others or short e-mails complaining about what other teachers were doing.  These conversations did little more than make me feel better about myself for a few minutes, but upon reflection impacted the quality of my conversations and actions with them later.  It was very humbling for me to realize that I was one of the people who needed to change my language in order for our school to move forward.  Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, in their book Tribal Leadership, succinctly explain the role that langue plays not only in diagnosing the health of an organization, but in using language to improve the culture of a group.  They argue that each culture has its own theme, “that appears whenever people talk, e-mail, joke around, or just pass one another in the hallway.” (pg. 18) They go on to state that the dual indicators of language and observable behavior towards others in the group almost always correlate perfectly, “we can predict the performance of the tribe by counting the number of people who speak the language of each stage and notice who is in a position of leadership.” (pg. 26)  While assessment data and achievement scores help educators diagnosis the health of their schools, making a consistent effort to intentionally examine the language in the school will provide additional evidence in helping administrators evaluate the culture for learning within the school.     

So I leave you with two questions

What is the language of your school?
What are you going to do tomorrow to improve it?

Joshua Eidson
Leadership Teacher/Administrative Intern
Sunnyside High School

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset, the new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Logan, D. ,King, J and Fischer-Wright H. (2011). Tribal leadership: Leveraging natural groups to build a thriving organization. Harper Business.

Ni, H. (1979). The complete works of lao tzu, tao teh ching and hua hu ching. Sevenstar Communications.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Does Change Happen without REALLY Taking a Deep and Focused Look into the Mirror?

One district’s pathway to success: The Othello School District Story

Stories are a powerful thing.  They remind us of who we are, what we believe, where we came from and where we are going.  This story is one of change.  It tells how a small school district located in a rural farming community of Eastern Washington made changes to significantly increase student achievement in reading and mathematics despite many overwhelming obstacles.  We are the Othello School District and this is our story.

District Context and Demographic Factors 
Located in central Washington, the Othello community is commonly recognized as the “Heart of the Columbia Basin.” Othello’s agricultural value comes from the 60 crops and over half the nation's French fries that are made from potatoes grown in the area. The Othello School District currently enrolls 3,655 students of which 82 percent are Hispanic.  Additionally, 79 percent of the students qualify for free/reduced lunch count.  While being centrally located in the state, it does pose challenges of mobility for students.  Current trends find Othello to be growing with student enrollment increasing the needs for more programming and space for classrooms. Most of the growth has come from indigenous Mexicans commonly known as ‘Mixtecos’ whom speak their own dialect related to Mayan.

A Need For Change
McFarland Middle School was one of the first schools identified in the state of Washington as a “School in Improvement.”  It was, in a word, heart-breaking. We believed that the teachers were working hard. We believed that students were learning. And we believed that our community, although silent, appreciated the work that we were doing. We were disappointed with the reality. Although it was true that our teachers were working hard, we were not working together and we were not focused on our students’ needs. 

As we surveyed students, parents, teachers, and staff the results deepened the heartbreak. The students didn’t feel like they had teachers who cared. The community didn’t feel welcomed in our school, and the staff didn’t feel that others were working as hard as they were working individually.

The findings at Othello High School were equally disheartening.  Data from a variety of sources showed that we were not moving towards meeting the requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as defined by the Washington State Office of Public Instruction (OSPI).  There was a significant achievement gap between our Caucasian and Hispanic students, 50 to 70 percent of our students did not feel there was an adult on campus with who they had a strong connection, and a third of the staff felt that our students could not succeed in passing the reading, writing, or math sections of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). 
Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.   As a school district we realized that if we wanted different results for our students, we needed to make some changes.  And so the work began.

Change One: Multiple Perspectives
Early on it was determined that multiple perspectives were needed to facilitate change.  This would require inviting not only department chairs and administration, but also teachers, staff, community members, and students to participate in the process.  At the high school the School Improvement Plan (SIP) team initially consisted of department chairs who were assigned to attend the meetings.  This team was disbanded and a standing invitation was extended to all staff members to become participants.  This allowed representation of invested staff from a variety of content areas, which in turn created an environment of respect and rich discussion leading to action.  

Community members were actively recruited to serve on the team and students were given a voice by inviting a changing panel of students representing the socioeconomic demographics of the student body.  The student panel continues to meet periodically with the SIP team to engage in conversations on topics relevant to both staff and students, such as the school environment and the reasons for dropping out. These student panels have become an invaluable resource, and are the inspiration behind some of the SIP team’s most successful changes to OHS. 

McFarland Middle School followed the same course.  The School Improvement Committee was formed and chaired, not by administration, but by one of the teachers.  Weekly meetings were scheduled and anyone could be a part of the committee which followed the norms outlined for equal representation of content instruction, grade level, and regular attendance. 

Change Two: Teacher Leadership
At the onset of the improvement process McFarland faced the challenge of a change in leadership which left much of the administrative responsibilities to the assistant principal who was already dealing with a very full schedule.  Seeing a need, teachers stepped up to help carry the load.  Smaller committees were formed to work on the specific goals of academic improvement, improved culture for students and staff, and improved communication with parents and community.  As changes in administration have taken place, teacher leadership has continued to grow. Currently teachers chair committees more frequently than administrators. Teachers train teachers with new strategies, and teachers take the lead in training new staff members on the process and use of professional learning communities. 

The high school also realized that true sustainability is achieved through having teacher leaders; that it is important to provide opportunities for staff to grow and develop into leaders, and that individual initiative should be encouraged and supported.  A staff book club was started by one of the history teachers, Learning Improvement Days (LID) feature professional development by teachers, and three staff meetings a month are reserved for teachers to lead their fellow staff members in developing new strategies and skills.  Both schools have realized that our best resources and solutions lie within each one of us.  

Change Three: Collaboration
Seeing the need for collaboration, both schools incorporated the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) concept.  The PLC concept allowed for team meetings on a regular basis to discuss student needs and upcoming events such as school-wide assessments, conferences, and grading.  These PLC meetings continue to help foster ownership of classes, teams, and school as well as build a sense of belonging for all members of the school.
If you were to visit Othello High School today, you would be taken into a variety of classrooms and encouraged to speak with students about their learning.  This open door policy is a result of PLCs which have allowed teachers to share data, create common assessments, align curriculum and ask each other, “What are you doing that is causing your students to achieve?” 

Another collaborative program incorporated is the BERC Group’s STAR (Skills/Knowledge, Thinking, Application, Relationships) Framework for Powerful Teaching. Through the STAR program teachers were given the opportunity to visit different classrooms within the district and view fellow educators in action.  Instructional practices in a Kindergarten classroom could be solutions to challenges faced in secondary classrooms.  Instead of having six to eight other teachers to collaborate with, there were now over one-hundred.  

In addition to PLCs and STAR walks, instructional coaches were incorporated as a resource, support and an instructional partner.  Having an instructional coach enabled teacher to have individualized professional development.  

Change Four:  Culture
Both schools saw the need to move from a “principal or administrator’s school” to one in which teachers, students, and community were invested.  At McFarland Middle School this meant the adoption of an open door policy.  Parents and community members are invited to visit the school at any time to observe what is happening in the classroom.  Administrators regularly visit classrooms to observe and collect data on instruction and learning.

At Othello High School the goal was set to provide opportunities for students to invest themselves in school activities, and to feel that there are adults who care about them as a person.  A Club Fair, Super Student Assemblies, and the Freshman Assembly are some of the ways in which OHS is working toward this goal. The Club Fair, held at the beginning of each school year, introduces students to the many school clubs available and provides peers to answer any questions.  Super Student Assemblies honor students who exemplify traits such as the willingness to put forth effort and the desire to change and a Freshman Assembly at the beginning of each year introduces incoming students to support staff, administrators, and teachers.  Parents and community are invited to participate.

Change Five:  Focus
Many believe that a secondary school’s main task is to get as many students qualified for graduation as possible.  We used to think that too, but we have come to realize that it is not our end goal.  Our goal is to enable each of our students to leave us being college and career ready.  This goal cannot be met by administrators or teachers alone.  It requires a partnership between educators, students, and community.

And The Story Continues
While academic gains have increased at the high school and middle school, the improvement has been systemic.  Reading, Mathematics and Writing scores show continual gains with occasional dips that remind us of the need to be focused and deliberate in our efforts.

The story of Othello School District will never be done because it continues to have new chapter written every day.  Looking at the past, present, and future we believe the following:
  • Admitting there is a problem is the first step to solving the problem.
  • There is an abundance of valuable resources available within each of us. 
  • The focus must reflect the true mission.
  • Embrace the uncomfortable nature of change because the results are worth it.
In the words of musician Robert Cushing, “The fact is that to do anything in the world worth doing, we must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in and scramble through as well as we can.”  In the Othello school district we live by these words thought our daily actions. 

Dr. Miguel A. Villarreal- Othello Assistant Superintendent
Denise Colley-Instructional Coach, McFarland Middle School
Tamara Deford-Instructional Coach, Othello High School

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Will That Be on the Test? Creating Engaging Learning Environments

In his book 'Outliers', Malcolm Gladwell (2008) stated that pioneers such as the Beatles and Bill Gates were phenomenal in their craft because they had mastered it over 10,000 hours.  Our students attend school for over 10,000 hours in their K-12 careers. What educational "crafts" will they master when they graduate?

"Will that be on the test?", is a cry for help for many of our students.  They have endured many hours in classrooms where they have not been required to think. Their goal becomes to 'get it done', get the grade and survive the day. The classroom learning environment needs to encourage students to take advantage of the opportunity to become self-directed and motivated learners.  The following is a 'shift of mind' that occurred in my district.

Learning Trust

This concept works both ways, the students will learn from you and you will learn more about your practice from them.  Here is an example. In a traditional classroom, the teacher will read out all of the instructions to the students on a paper. The message that is sent to the students is that the most important thing is compliance with directions and they cannot be trusted to "get it right"  on their own. For the highly capable students, they must wait until the teacher reviews the entire assignment before they can start.  They are also told that they must follow these boundaries if they want to be successful which limits creativity.

In a classroom where there is learning trust, the teacher hands over the main concepts of the assignment for review.  The students assess what they understand and difficulties.  The teacher also asks the students for feedback on how to make the assignment more rewarding. This creates a learning partnership where students feel validated and are given an opportunity to explore further options in their learning. After the initial review, students can share their concerns and questions with their peers in groups as well as share their expertise and support others in their learning.

High Cognitive Demand

When a student knows that the end goal  is to remember a bunch of facts on the final test to get their grade, then that is often the bar that they will set. The assessment is often low cognitive demand so that basic information is remembered. This tells students that listing, describing and retrieving information is what is important. This is outdated industrial-age thinking. Today's students need to analyze, create, debate, and critique (Bloom,1956)  They need to expect to struggle as part of the learning process and to reflect on their struggles in a journal or peer conversations and then assess what the need to work on.  Assessment is too often an 'autopsy' rather than a tool for students, parents and teachers to document growth.  Imagine a Student Led Conference with a student proudly showing a parent some early reflections where they struggled and then showing evidence of how they have improved. This creates a motivated student who can see the results and is in charge of their learning.

Use of Resources: Flow of Information

My superintendent once told me, "Frustration occurs when you run out of options."  This is often the problem that students have with cognitively demanding work. The goal for a teacher should be to encourage the students to utilize the resources in the room. The best resource to tap into are the thirty other students in the classroom. In a typical middle school classroom, that would amount to over 2,000 hours of learning experience. The role of the teacher is to have the students turn to their peers and other resources and not to them. Some suggestions for teachers are:
  •    Find alternative methods to the teacher delivering the content
  •    When a student asks a question, throw it back to the class
  •  Tell students to use their resources instead of solving the problem for them
  •  Stop playing the role of the validator.  Allow the students to figure it out
  •  Provide thought provoking questions that challenges student thinking and sparks debate
Think about all the life-long skills they are learning as a result of peer networking in the classroom.  The actual subject becomes the tool for students working together to problem solve which is real world application. Take advantage of the fact that kids like to communicate with each other and move around the room working with others.

"What do you want your students to be able to do after their 10,000 hours in school?"  If the goal is to complete the content and get a grade, then don't be surprised if the engagement level is low and compliance is more evident than learning.  If your students learn to trust their peers and adults and have developed a tool kit to take on the most difficult challenges then we have created learners ready to be successful in the real world. That makes for a rewarding experience for both the student and teacher.


Bloom, B. and Krathwol, R. (1956), Taxonomy of educational objectives. The classification of educational goals, by a committee of college and university examiners. Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain, New York, Longmans

Gladwell, M. (2008), Outliers. New York, Hatchette Book Group

Written by:
David Cooke, Principal
La Center Middle School

Monday, March 12, 2012

What Do All Students Need from All Teachers?

In this Educational Leadership article entitled, Teach Up for Excellence, differentiation guru Carol Ann Tomlinson (University of Virginia) and EDEquity founder Edwin Lou Javius note that until quite recently, U.S. schools were legally segregated and unequal based on race. Today, there is still significant racial and economic separation within schools. “The logic behind separating students by what educators perceive to be their ability is that it enables teachers to provide students with the kind of instruction they need,” say Tomlinson and Javius. “All too often, however, students in lower-level classrooms receive a level of education that ensures they will remain at the tail end of the learning spectrum.”

The deepest wounds that schools inflict on students, they continue, “are wounds of underestimation. We underestimate students when they come to us with skills and experiences that differ from the ones we expected and we conclude they’re incapable of complex work. We underestimate students when they fall short of expectations because they don’t understand the school game and we determine that they lack motivation. We underestimate them when we allow them to shrink silently into the background of the action in the classroom. We underestimate them, too, when we assume they’re doing well in school because they earn high grades, and we praise them for reaching a performance level that required no risk or struggle.”
This is a shame, they say, because low-achieving students flourish when they’re exposed to high-level instruction. We know the human brain is “incredibly malleable, and that individuals can nearly always outperform our expectations of them… Virtually all students would benefit from the kind of curriculum and instruction we have often reserved for advanced learners – that is, curriculum and instruction designed to engage students, with a focus on meaning making, problem solving, logical thinking, and transfer of learning.” 

These convictions bring Tomlinson and Javius to seven principles for “teaching up” – that is, creating classrooms that give all students access to high achievement:
Accept that human differences are normal and desirable. “Each person has something of value to contribute to the group, and the group is diminished without that contribution,” say Tomlinson and Javius. “Teachers who teach up create a community of learners in which everyone works together to benefit both individuals and the group.”
Develop a growth mindset. This means “doggedly challenging the preconception that high ability dwells largely in more privileged students,” say the authors. “The greatest barrier to learning is often not what the student knows, but what the teacher expects of the student.” Growth-mindset teachers emphasize hard work, set clear learning goals, and provide support and feedback along the way.
Work to understand students’ cultures, interests, needs, and perspectives. “Teaching any student well means striving to understand how that student approaches learning and creating an environment that is respectful of and responsive to what each student brings to the classroom,” say Tomlinson and Javius.
Create a base of rigorous learning opportunities. This includes discipline-specific knowledge and skill expectations, connections with students’ lives, collaboration with peers, looking at different perspectives, and having students create authentic products for real audiences.
Understand students’ varied entry-points and curriculum speed. “Teachers who teach up understand that some students may feel racially and culturally isolated in their classes,” say Tomlinson and Javius. “Therefore, they find multiple ways for students to display their insights for the group. These teachers understand that every student needs ‘peacock’ moments of success so classmates accept them as intellectual contributors.”
Create flexible classroom routines and procedures. The trick is to draw on classroom assessments, formal and informal, to accommodate the inevitable range of student needs. “Teachers who teach up carefully select times when the class works as a whole, when students work independently, and when students work in groups,” say Tomlinson and Javius. “They teach their students when and how to help one another as well as how to guide their own work effectively.”
Be an analytical practitioner. Effective teachers are students of their students. “They empower students to teach them, as teachers, what makes students most successful,” say the authors.

“Teach Up for Excellence” by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Edwin Lou Javius in Educational Leadership, February 2012 (Vol. 69, #5, p. 28-33), http://www.ascd.org.

Blog written by:
Kim Marshall, consultant