Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Guest Post—Stereotype Threat

On Monday night, I had the good fortune to hear Dr. Claude Steele speak about his research which focused on Stereotype Threat. My colleague also attended and put these thoughts together. He captured the talk so well, so with his permission, I'm sharing. Thanks, David.

Dr. Claude Steele gave a talk last night at ETHS on the concept of Stereotype Threat that was as personal as it was informative. He examined the question of stereotype itself, gave a series of examples where it happens, and then provided some solutions as to how it can be mitigated or even eliminated.

As part of his story, Dr. Steele shared his own early days in grad school, where white professors down the hall would freely use the "N" word, and there were regular open discussions on campus that explored the inferiority of black people's innate intellect. In this environment, as the only black man in the program, Claude Steele was not himself, he said. He was cautious and afraid to say anything for fear of promoting a negative stereotype. He was experiencing then what he would later go on to research extensively and define as stereotype threat.

During his talk, Dr. Steele shared many stories and ideas that resonated deeply. Here are just a few:
  • When black students took a non-verbal IQ test, they performed a full standard deviation lower than their
    white peers. When they took the same test, but where told before hand that it was "just a puzzle" and not any measure of anything, they performed at the same level... "Puzzles are fun," he said. "The frustration is part of the puzzle so it's OK".. but when you are feeling measured, he said, performance can drop, particularly if you are part of a group for whom there are negative stereotypes in our society.
  • "What makes you subject to stereotype threat is not anything about a lack of skills. It is when you care about your performance...It's the best math student that experiences the greatest stereotype threat."
  • "What creates stereotype threat is not anything about you," he said. "It is about context."  And thus there are remedies to eliminating stereotype threat. He provided these:
    • Teachers need to learn about stereotype threat and be constantly conscious of the cues they may be creating both personally and systemically
    • Teachers must take on, and teach, a growth mindset.
    • Identify less with the student, but rather with what he is dealing with. 
    • Schools should provide role models ("existence proof of what is possible")
As a continuation of his story of grad school, Dr. Steele went on to talk about his own advisor, a white man who, with time, demonstrated a true faith in the young Dr. Steele. "I began to realize he believed in me," he said. They had a strong relationship. "He'd ask me my opinions, and he cared what I had to say." They published a paper together. "Pretty soon I realized Shh... I can do this. I'm good."

Dr. Steele emphasized the explicit belief that someone had in his abilities. And then the authentic feeling of genuine success. He gives credit to these two things as propelling him forward early on to the success he has seen since.

Dr. Steele is now Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of California, Berkeley

"We need to treat our students," Dr. Steele said during the Q&A, "like they are our own children. We need to treat them with love. We have to start with that. We need to start with love and with appreciation. Students need to be met with that first."

"If I could summarize my own work in one word," Dr. Steele said as he closed. "It would be 'perspective'. I need to take the perspective of the student. I need to be in their shoes. When I take the perspective of the student, I don't see the student at all. I just see the circumstances they face and I begin to think about how to address them."

~David Wartowski, Director of Mathematics, Niles North

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Teacher Evaluations

What's the point? My district is spending a significant (rather exorbitant) amount of time discussing the evaluation process. Yes, we've adopted the Danielson Framework. Many of the conversations help me to learn the lingo, understand the mechanics, recognize the legalities and brainstorm potential standard operating procedures. This is all necessary for me. And others. But it's a rare occasion when we set aside the same significant amount of time to have in depth conversations about why we evaluate teachers, what we sincerely hope to gain, and—most of all—how we use best practice pedagogy as a part of our evaluative process to help teachers grow. I don't think any district does enough of this.

The majority of my teaching colleagues would tell you that being evaluated is a hoop to jump through, an annoyance, paperwork that needs to get done. And now, they would add one new twist. It helps districts end up with rankings. A condition that nurtures competition and isolation. How do I know? Because I've asked all of my former colleagues. And I was one of them...So we need to do better than these experiences.

The mechanical pieces of evaluations are necessary. I know that. However, there are so many parallels between teacher evaluations and student assessments that I hope we capitalize on them; I think they can help guide this journey. Concerned and effective teachers spend the majority of their careers trying to tip the balance for students from thinking about "points" to focusing on "learning." If students spend their time concentrating on points, they open the door to a number of educational traps—anxiety, ignorance, missed opportunities, and creative suffocation. But if they concentrate on learning, the appropriate grade follows and an unexpected world of adventure and connection surfaces along the way. The same is true for how we evaluate teachers. We need to tip the balance of focus for teachers from evaluations (ranks) to true professional development (pushing practice).

So as an administrator, I feel a self-prescribed, appropriate level of responsibility to help teachers do this. To grow, not just exist or survive. This requires experience, differentiation, risk-taking, presence, intelligence, time, joy and support. (That's all!) So I need to develop an "SOP" that uses what I want teachers to gain from the evaluative process as the foundation of the mechanics. Here's what I want for them:
  • To Enjoy Teaching
  • To Push Practice
  • To Stay Current
  • To Remain (or learn to be) Creative
  • To Nurture Connections
  • To Balance Personal and Professional Worlds
  • I want them to want to come to work and play...
If teachers focus on the above, any rubric used to assess their practice will lead to an appropriate evaluation. But if they focus on the rubric (grade), the prescribed outcomes (rewards) may surface, but all of the above will slowly die out.

So as I try to develop a means to tip this balance, I know for certain that one way to tap into the language of the above is to model the joy of being an educator. And I really do love this arena. I see the weight lifted from the shoulders of teachers who spend every daylight hour trying to nurture student growth when I simply smile.

So here's a suggestion. We want teachers to practice all of the above. Because in the end, if they do, what a singularly exceptional experience our students will have in their classrooms. So let go of the mechanics a bit. Practice the above as a leader. Let your hair down, so to speak. Vulnerability permits honesty to surface. And growth follows.

Develop a lesson plan. Together.
Make mistakes. Together.
Have a serious discussion. Together.
Write on the wall. Together.
Dance. Together.
Sing. Together.
Play music. Together. (I mean seriously...if you can sing or play an instrument, how are you NOT using this as a means to connect or create. Coming from someone who would give her right arm to be able to do this...)
Create an artistic piece. Together.
Perform. Together.
Get laughed at. Together.
Get yelled at. Together.
Share stories. Together.
Challenge each other's positions. Together.
Fall. And Rise. Together.
Protest. And Fundraise. Together.
Forgive. And Celebrate. Together.
More than anything else, break bread together. Often.

Then, and only then, will teachers feel the freedom to let go. And fly. (And yes, I'm still searching for the time to do a lot of the above. But I am doing as much of it as I can.)

We all know that every child deserves a champion to advocate on their behalf. We have those aplenty at my district. That's a given.

I contend every teacher deserves a champion too.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

One Look Is All It Takes

As I shared in a recent post, my attendance at a conference in New Orleans last month has put me on a journey of rediscovery. I love this self-exploration. I'm challenged by it. I like myself better because of it. And I'm now fully aware of why I'm haunted by an incident that occurred while out one evening. I haven't shared this story with anyone yet; I just didn't want to believe. But ever since the Ferguson verdict, I shiver...

A group of us arrived in NOLA late Friday night, and we had a few hiccups getting out of the airport. My luggage was lost, there were lines, and the shuttle took FOREVER. Eventually, though, after checking into our hotel, a group of us went in search of food and fun. In tragic fashion, hunger won out and we ate at a fast-food place rather than visit a local establishment for edible cuisine. I had no chance of winning this fight; it was me and six men. Six, big, hungry men.

After they consumed approximately 20 pounds of deep fried padding, we all set out down Bourbon Street. Within 2 minutes, one of my colleagues was challenged to a fight. Something about his shoes. Strange. But true. Regardless, we kept walking, his shoes intact.

Music and street performers met us around the first corner. We all stopped to gape. And sway. And laugh. We kept walking down the street. Costumes and dancing and singing greeted us at every block. There's no place like NOLA. No place. So. Much. Fun!

It was at this moment I remembered something my best friend had said to me years earlier when we were presenting at a conference in NOLA. "Joan, we've been to a dozen cities together over the years. I'll tell you. If I had to pick one city, this is the place I'd never let you walk alone. So stay close to me, okay?" He had lived in this city years prior, so I listened. And felt comfortable that my 6'4" friend was watching over me.

And I thought reassuringly to myself, "Well, you're surrounded by six, big, still hungry men. You're fine now, too."

And then it happened. I was trying to be stealthy and take a picture (above, blurry) of 5 police officers standing on a corner in a circle as some sort of "How-is-this-protecting-and-serving?" sarcastic statement, when one of them looked at my friend—the same colleague who had been challenged to a fight about his shoes not 10 minutes earlier—and yelled, "What are you staring at? What the fuck are you all staring at? Huh?!"

I don't know if my friend heard it or saw it. Or if the rest of them heard it or saw it. None of them had done anything to provoke any sort of interaction with the police. And the officers had no idea I was even with these guys, let alone that I had taken a picture of their posse. But when this cop yelled, I stopped dead in my tracks. The look on his face was frightening. The posture that the rest of the policemen took was jarring. His expression was not just angry. It was hateful. He was looking for a fight. They were looking for this fight.

Yes. It's my interpretation. It's biased. But I hadn't yet been to a single session at this conference, so I wasn't influenced by rhetoric. I hadn't started my transformation. I was still walking around with my central-Illinois, farm-town, white-Irish-Catholic, girl lens. And this was a hateful look.

My entire insides churned. My heart skipped a few beats. I still felt safe. But I now felt nervous for him. For them. And they all kept walking like nothing happened. So I followed. They were my escorts. But what if they hadn't just kept walking? What if just one of them had reacted, even benignly?

What race do you think he is? What race do you think the rest of them are?

Yep. That happened. And I can't help but feel my stomach churn each time I think about that young boy—yes, 18 is young and a boy—pleading, "Don't shoot."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How & Why I Play @ Work

"We don't stop playing because we grow older; we grow older because we stop playing."

Play. Such a lost, needed pastime. In my new leadership role, I find it more necessary than ever to model playing and having unstructured, adventurous time. Making time for it. Yes, here at work. I have written about play in the past. I've shared the reward of reconnecting with my inner child. And I've seen the positive consequence of the virus of play infecting my new department. And I couldn't be happier about it.

I'll be honest, though. As much as I'd like to say that I do this as a means of being a really effective leader...that's not altogether honest. I do it because, quite simply, I don't know how to function without play. It's a part of who I am and how I exist on a daily basis. Every day...a little play.

I have so many posts to add to my blog; more intellectual, introspective, reflective posts. Things that will generate conversation about how to effect positive educational change regarding racism and narrowing the racial achievement gap. Posts that will share the journey I'm on rediscovering myself...huge. You have no idea; I have no idea. ;)

But today I'd like to share more lighthearted information. (Because I'm not ready for the above.) So, the one type of play that has helped me through the last few months is listening to music, dancing and singing to some of my favorite tunes.

I'm not an actual singer or dancer...which is obvious to anyone who catches me in my office listening to music, dancing around the room, singing as IF I knew what I was doing, as if I knew all the lyrics. :) BUT, I have learned I am a much more creative, constructive problem solver and leader...when I move. I have to move to think. I really do. I used to read textbooks and edit papers in college by walking up and down the dorm hallways reading things out loud. I continue that tradition here at work. People can see that I'm having fun with the process of figuring out challenges, staying hopeful that there is a constructive path, and sharing the brainstorms that cross my mind along the way...all because I'm "moving" about my office.

So this is one small token I offer to anyone out there looking for a small, positive change in daily routine. Let your creative process free. Allow yourself to reconnect with your natural inclination to PLAY. Whatever form that takes. And LIVE IT. It's contagious. And when others see it, the entire atmosphere of thinking and learning changes for the better.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Courageous Conversations—A First Timer's Account

“As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally—our willingness to be disturbed.” ~Margaret Wheatley, Willing to Be Disturbed. (A quick read, and worth it.)

These past five days, I jumped in with both feet. I was willing to be disturbed. Too willing, perhaps. Because I am disturbed. Deeply, to-the-core disturbed. But the good kind!

I was lucky enough to attend the National Summit for Courageous Conversations 2014. The focus? To begin, or continue to have, meaningful dialogue about race. Racial Equity. As the founder and president Glenn Singleton shares,

We must continue to engage in honest, unapologetic conversations about racial disparities in education and effective ways in which to unlock the untapped potential of children of color.
After the first day, I entered a state of thorough disequilibrium. I have always loved the idea of Wheatley's excerpt (above), but I haven't been this "disturbed" in a very long time. If ever. Without a doubt, I have returned home a changed person.

The choreography of the event was both inspirational and effective. Each moment was exceptionally deliberate, done to nudge you—sometimes push you—into the next challenge. Titled a conference or a summit, in my experience, this was part of a movement. To be in a room with 900 global representatives, all equally eager and committed to making positive change in our children's educational experiences was powerful! I felt the effects, the growth, of what happens being in a room where everyone has the space to be honest, and to be supported when falling and encouraged when flying. And I more deeply understood the tragedy of continuing to ignore issues of race in education. Because they permeate every nook and cranny of our buildings.

I consider myself a reflective person. Very reflective. So it's no surprise to me that I'm processing my thoughts in this post immediately upon arriving home. I'm flipping between quadrants and learning something new each hour about myself. That's where the work needs to begin. And it's not easy.

I was given multiple opportunities for safe, personal exploration. About race. About white privilege. About a host of other topics, personal and educational. I reflected on difficult scenarios, prompted by a facilitator, a colleague, a stranger or myself. I shared mysteriously moving moments. And I realized that my belief system in many ways is flawed and ignorant. That I surprised myself many times these past five days. And I feel somewhat lost in my own skin, but better equipped to do something about it.

And I wasn't alone. My school district sent a large and diverse representative group of people, all creating their own unique stories. I believe my district has both a rare opportunity, as well as an unambiguous responsibility, to use the momentum of our courageous conversations together as the genesis of substantive change. By attending this summit, we did not just go through professional development. We lived a shared experience while gaining personal insights. I believe we established some level of self-actualization as a district, defining the foundational theme that should and must steer our district’s every conversation. All other dialogue benefits and extends from this one. ALL.

My take-aways as a first time attendee:
  • Learning about yourself is the only way to grow.
  • I contribute to the structure of the status quo.
  • I will model positive change by continuing to learn how to participate in courageous conversations.
  • This responsibility begins with me. I need not wait for "directions."
  • As I reflect on the experiences of the past five days, I will be gentle with myself.
Anyway, it's a start.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder...

...but from where does the "beholder" get his/her definition of beauty?

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Is it the reflection you expected to see? Perhaps a more important question is, why do you see what you see? And when you look at others, what do you see? And Why?

Recently, over a dozen friends and family have lost a noticeable amount of weight. The vast majority are women, but there are a couple of men, as well. I can't tell you what will power and commitment it took for them to get to their current position of overall health. It has been an emotional, physical and psychological challenge, full of ups and downs. I admire them all immensely for braving this journey.

But what I'm afraid many observers don't understand is that the majority of these people didn't just "lose weight." They made life style changes. They wanted to become healthier. Perhaps lower their blood pressure or cholesterol, increase their energy level, improve their heart rates, decrease their triglycerides and lipids, etc. So they didn't "stop eating and drop pounds." They chose to eat better calories, sleep more, exercise safely and effectively, focus on inner peace, remove themselves from stressful situations, spend more time laughing and connecting with loved ones, finding new intellectual challenges, etc.

When we see someone who has lost weight, usually the first thing we say is, "Wow! You look beautiful! How much weight have you lost?" And there it is. That's the verbal weapon of self-image destruction. That's what triggers the misinterpretation and teaches a faulty definition of beauty. Focusing on just one outcome of what these brave, committed, healthy-conscious people did—the losing weight part—tragically obscures their true accomplisment, and more disturbingly, helps to nurture poor self-esteem, poor self-image, poor self-worth for the next generation of young adults who might be within earshot of hearing your "compliment" in the first place.

There are all sorts of body types. For men and for women. There are as many body shapes as there are people. Every single one of the people I've referred to in this post is a beautiful person. They always have been. And they always will be. The fact that their physical appearance has changed does not make them more or less likable, more or less loveable, more or less desirable, more or less funny, etc. Hopefully, their lifestyle changes make them healthier and happier.

Weight alone does NOT dictate health. It can be one indicator of overall health, out of hundreds of other data points. But it's the one data point we fixate on. So if you are physically healthy, don't change your weight to conform to another's definition of beauty. (Just like anything...) (If you aren't physically healthy, then that needs to be your focus. Not your looks.) Is your self-esteem actually rooted in "other-esteem," defined by others as opposed to your own thoughts? If so, spend some time reflecting on that, rather than your image in the mirror.

So we all need to do a better job of focusing on what matters. Not focusing on weight loss and/or weight gain and/or physical appearance. An all-around healthy life balance is much more nuanced than just our looks. So be careful about what words you choose, the conversations you have, particularly around middle schoolers and elementary age children. They absorb way more than we realize. And we want them to look in the mirror and think good things about themselves, not just focus on their weight. We want them to learn to be confident, happy and valued. That their physical reflection doesn't dictate those things. It's the honest and loving interactions they have with others that counts.

What's my value? How confident am I? What idea do I have about my personality, ability, appearance? Am I using my unique beauty—my passions and talents—to help others and to connect with them?

"No one can make you inferior without your consent." ~Eleanor Roosevelt.

So think before you compliment someone. Be aware of how your words might be interpretted by youngsters.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Everyone has his/her own extraordinary beauty. If you look in the mirror using the right lens, you'll see it.