Dear Olivia

Dear Olivia,

You are my one of a kind. When I think of the things you have endured, it makes me proud that you have overcome everything to be a very unique individual. I know that because of your struggles you will be a strong adult.

Mentally, emotionally, physically I don’t know that there is a person in the world that is more like me. That comes with its consequences and its rewards. Some of those you will learn on your own. Since I see a lot of me in you, I wanted to share some things that I would tell my 18 year old self:

  1. Don’t be afraid to fail. It sounds like a cliché but it is very true. Trying things that you are not good at enriches your life in countless ways. It makes your brain grow, it makes you more confident, and it increases your ability to handle setbacks and frustration.
  2. Be yourself. I’m still learning this and you could probably teach me a few things in this area. Swim against the current with confidence that you know where you are going.
  3. Believe in your power to figure things out. I think this is where public education fails us as adults. No one ever expects us to think through problems so we never gain that ability. As I have gotten older I have learned a lot by making the decision that I am going to figure things out on my own.
  4. Bring the Joy! I have to be reminded to do this at times. Being happy is a conscience choice that we have to make every day. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is not. It is possible not only to be happy but also to spread happiness every day.
  5. Tip generously! Nothing says more about your character than the way you treat people when you have nothing to gain.
  6. Possibilities are everywhere! Your life from now on is all about possibilities. Anything is possible if you aren’t afraid to go after it.
  7. Relationships are everything! Good, true relationships are what connects the world. Not just close relationships but positive connections that you make can make the difference in achieving your dreams.

Today marks the beginning of your future. Grab onto it with both hands and don’t let go. While there will be tears today, know that this is a stepping stone in your life to bigger and better things. I know that you have a ton of untapped potential. I have seen you grow incredibly in the last couple of years but I truly believe that you have inside you great possibilities.

In the years to come you will become a more independent woman. You will begin to need me less and less. That is what I hope for. That is what I want for you. You are a strong, independent person who will fly as far as she sees fit. Remember that but also always remember that your dad is only a phone call away.

Love,

Dad

 

“When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take a step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.”
― Patrick Overton

Pennsylvania’s Hunger Games

My younger daughter this week announced that her final project for English 12 is a research paper. For their research, they have to utilize a novel that they read in class this year. Her chosen title is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Brave New World was dystopian literature before dystopian literature was the realm of young adult literature. My thoughts went to a comparison and contrast of BNW with one of this generation’s dystopian trilogies: Divergent, The Hunger Games, or The Maze Runner.

 

I’m not going to write her paper for her but I was interested in finding some thematic connections. I was especially interested in the theme of social class in these novels and how they might have changed to reflect the political scene of the times. The same thing kept coming back to me as I read about the Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons of BNW, the 13 Districts of The Hunger Games, The five Factions of Divergent, The Inner Party, The Outer Party and the Proles of 1984: This reminds me of education funding in Pennsylvania.

 

I’ve written on this topic before. The injustice created in education exists throughout the world but the 500 districts of Pennsylvania provide a microcosmic glance at what occurs worldwide. I read a couple of pieces this week that brought that notion to light. The first was from Downingtown School District’s technology department: “Downingtown First in Nation to go 1:1:1.” The gist of the article is that every student will have an electronic device for every class. From Kindles for English and iPads for math to Fitbits for PE and Android phones for World Languages. Sounds awesome! The other piece was actually cited by many members of the Pennsylvania House: “Wolf Angers GOP with Funding Formula that Gives Smaller Hikes to Most School Districts“. The linked article is specifically about Lehigh Valley schools but you can find similar articles in newspapers across the State. GOP lawmakers, in general, are upset that the schools that need the money to offset current inequalities, are receiving more money than other districts in the state. The three big winners are Philadelphia and Pittsburgh City Schools and the Chester Upland School District. Chester Upland is the school district whose teachers famously started the year without being paid because of the dire straits of the District’s finances. Being a winner in this case is more like a consolation prize.

 

For this analysis let’s just say that Downingtown is District 1 of The Hunger Games and Chester Upland is District 12. District 1 is the wealthiest of the 13 Districts where they reportedly have a device that turns graphite into diamonds.  Downingtown, while not the richest school in  the state based on aid ratio, is benefitting from a new amusement park that will soon move them up the ladder. An aid ratio of .35 puts them at the number 65 spot of the richest schools in PA.  District 12’s chief function is coal mining and is the poorest of the District’s. In the Hunger Games District 12 historically has no chance of winning the Games. They view the tributes as a sacrifice of their children. Chester Upland is the 4th poorest school district in the state based on aid ration at .85. At Chester Upland being economically disadvantaged is the norm with 82% of the student population falling into that category. Downingtown, on the other hand, has fewer than 1 in 10 students who are living at that economic level. http://paschoolperformance.org/Profile/93 http://paschoolperformance.org/Profile/135

 

To make this characterization even harder to swallow, the cuts of 2011-12, hit the poorer districts harder than the richer districts. Districts in the bottom quartile, the poorest 125 school districts, saw an average cut of almost $1300. The top quartile, on the other hand, saw an average increase of about $125 per student. Yes, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The median household income in District 1 was $40,000. District 12 maxed out just over $70000. Katniss and Peeta have no chance to catch up. 

 

The mindset of the legislator seems to be that some children deserve more than other children. And let’s remember, that’s what we are talking about: children. Children who didn’t make the decision about where they live. Children who didn’t make a choice to be poor. Does every child in our state deserve the same chance to succeed? Does every student in this state deserve to be prepared for the 21st Century? How can we in good conscience continue to support the concept of the haves and the have nots?

 

A fair funding formula is necessary to support our children. An equalization of opportunity is vital to the future of our children. Katniss and Peeta with the help of Haymitch rose above the richer Districts to become champions but even in their triumph they were unable to break the chain of poverty in District 12. No amount of grit is going to save Chester Upland. A few may get out and break the chain for their families but many will continue to repeat the cycle of poverty for another generation. We definitely need a Brave New something. A Brave New approach to funding would be a godsend for many of our children.
Until then, May the odds be ever in your favor.

Yes, Sometimes Football is Nerdy!

I subscribe to the FiveThirtyEight newsletter. For those of you unfamiliar with 538 it is a website about numbers. Generally polling numbers but also general and advanced statistics that founder Nate Silver and his team use to make predictions. They predict just about anything from politics to sports.They make unbiased calls on who is leading political races and pick the winners of just about every pro and major college game. They do all of this using math. Kind of nerdy but cool.

 

After the Green Bay Packers lost to the Arizona Cardinals last weekend, Benjamin Morris, a sportswriter for 538, wrote that the Packers didn’t understand middle school mathematics. Morris’ assertion was that an understanding of middle school math would have led Mike McCarthy to attempt the two point conversion for the win rather than kick the extra point and go to OT.

Now anyone who watched this game would say it was one of the most exciting fourth quarters in NFL history. Down by a touchdown with virtually no time on the clock, Aaron Rodgers hurled an unbelievable ball into the end zone that was inexplicably caught by Jeff Janis for the game tying TD. Or should it have been the game winning TD.

 

According to Morris’ middle school math, the two point conversion was the mathematically correct call. On his stat sheet it, in the last 15 seasons the two point conversion is made on 47.2 percent of attempts. Not necessarily the greatest of odds. Anyone who has ever gambled would take those odds but not when the game is on the line. Everyone who has ever watched the NFL knows that. What everyone probably doesn’t know are the next two stats: 1. Since the NFL moved the extra point attempt back, NFL kickers have had a 94.3 percent success rate and 2. In the last 15 seasons, the visiting team, which in this case was the Pack, has won only 45.5 percent of the time. OK, so 1.7 percent isn’t that big of a deal but that’s not the end of this math lesson. The Packers needed to make the extra point (94.3%) AND win (45.2%). If you multiply the two of those together you get 42.9%; the percentage chance that Green Bay would win by kicking the extra point. Almost 5% worse than going for two.

 

Why did I spend all this time having that little discussion? Because I wonder how often we do this in real life. Had McCarthy gone for two and missed the fans, ESPN, everyone would have questioned him. How many times in our lives do we do what everyone expects us to do? How often do we play it safe instead of taking a chance? How often do we question the prevailing wisdom or the unwritten rules?

 

I know that as an educator people cringe when you talk about analyzing the data. This is a real world application of using data. The common consensus is that we teach these things because we have always taught these things. Kids need to know these things. The point that kids need to know these things is not what I’m arguing. What I am saying is that by not using the data we are ‘teaching’ things that students already know. By not analyzing what students need to know, we are doing them a disservice in the long run.

 

The obvious question then is how do we prepare students for jobs when the market is changing all the time. The simple answer is we start to teach them the skills that have the greatest percentage of possibility to be needed in the future: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration.

 

Technology is notably absent from this list because it is a subset of all four. Teaching students to collaborate using technology is far more important than teaching them technology in a vacuum. Our students are digital natives. They understand the technology as a user better than we do. They may not know how or why it works but they know how to access the world through it. Knowing how a car works doesn’t necessarily make you a better driver. Knowing how to put data into a spreadsheet is important for some professions but it’s not the technology that leads us to be better communicators, critical thinkers, creators, or collaborators.

Forty Eight – The Birthday Post

Wow, I made it to 48! Never thought I’d be this close to 50.

I started this blog four years ago thus the name 40phor. I’ve decided to maintain the name although the years keep adding up. I thought of 44 at the time as being a pivotal year in my life and, to be honest, every year since then has been pivotal. I think I grow every year. I’m still working on being a better father, husband, son, brother, teacher, leader and of course, writer. The last four years have been years of reflection that I had missed on my first 44.

Every year there are milestones and benchmarks. There are also difficulties and failures. Every year I try to identify my weaknesses and strengths. Every year I reflect on what I should be celebrating. For me, my birthday is a time to think about how I will make this year better than the last.

This year, 9/11/01 has been on my mind a lot. Like most people who were alive that day, there are still strong emotions each year. One of my first posts was about 9/11. And my second post ever was about Glenn Beck’s 9-12 project. I was pretty tough on Beck.

I still think Beck is an alarmist and a bit of a putz. I have read some of The Blaze and I can’t understand how a mass of people can believe every thing this guy writes when he only uses his personal feelings as resources.

I will admit that Mr. Beck had a point. In the days following 9/11/01 we were a different nation of people. We were all there for each other. There was much less divisiveness and much more love. After the initial fear wore off, more people cherished the important things in their lives. It was very scary as I recall but we were all in this together. We were a united nation.

What I don’t think many realize is that 9/11 has also led us to where we are today. When all that love and support wore off, politicians began to place one religion over another due to those responsible for the terrorist attacks. Our government started to put the safety of the nation above the freedoms of individuals. While the Christian Right pulled one way to claim the US for Christ, the hardcore left held on dearly to what they valued. Now, more than just freedoms and religions, every issue has become a fight between the left and the right. There really is no middle ground any more. There really are no seriously political moderates on either side. As much as liberals hated Reagan and the Bushes, they were way closer to the center than any of our current political righties. The left has countered with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, spreading ideas that seem more associated with the 70s than the 21st Century. It seems you have to be extrem to be noticed. In PA, we are in one of the longest budget debates in Commonwealth history. Tom Wolf, probably more socially liberal than Ed Rendell, has put his foot down on his support of public education. The more fiscally conservative House has said it will hold the line. Apparently no room for compromise.

It’s painful for me to think that fateful day may have led to our current state of divisiveness in this country.

In that blog post on Glenn Beck, I posted 10 values and two principles.to strive for to counter Mr. Beck’s 12. I think they are probably even more relevant today:

Two principles

  1. All people are created equal.  Not just rich, white, American men who run businesses.
  2. We all have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and so do all humans around the world. Whatever God, god or other supreme being we believe in created us all and didn’t create some to live in poverty, and some to live as captives, and some to never know happiness.

Ten Values

  1. Caring
  2. Understanding
  3. Knowledge
  4. Hope
  5. Imagination
  6. Individualism
  7. Fairness
  8. Trust
  9. Service
  10. Charity

I know, my liberal is showing but, it’s my birthday!

The Struts – They Get Me

 

I love rock music. The good old fashioned kind. Electric guitars, bass guitars, drums and some dude wailing. Real, new rock is hard to come by. When I am in Pittsburgh I listen to WDVE and when I am in Philly it’s WMMR. These two along with WMMS in Cleveland are consistently the top rock stations in the east. I’m not talking alternative, acid, death metal, or punk just straight up rock and roll. There is one reason that I love rock music; It makes me feel good. It is fun and allows you to scream lyrics and rattle the dashboard with bass. I like all kinds of music: my playlists have something from just about every genre. But to feel good, I can’t wait until I get to those points on the PA Turnpike where i can begin to hear DVE or WMMS.

There is a point to this that relates to education. Just keep reading.

As I think I mentioned before, my number one professional goal for the year is to bring the fun. I’m trying hard to bring the joy with me to work every day. The goal is to improve the culture in a positive way. To do everything in my power to suppress the negative and accentuate the positive.

The video that I posted above is by a band called The Struts. The Struts get it. They embodied my beliefs in this song. The point of bringing the joy is to get the most you possibly can out of life. Embrace the struggle because it is part of living. My expectation isn’t that everyone will be happy everyday; my expectation is that we will try to find fun in our work. My expectation is that when we fall, we will learn together to get up. When we feel shame we learn from it and when we fell pride we celebrate it. When we taste pain we grow from it and when we fell love we shout it from the rooftops. When we look back on our lives we don’t want to have regrets, we all want to live better lives and we don’t want to say, “Damn, that could’ve been me!”

Let’s be honest, working in public education isn’t something that we chose to do for the glory, the paycheck or the constant positives from the public. We got in to education to impact lives. Little lives or big lives, at some point we all wanted to make a positive impact. We can’t do that with a negative attitude. We need to be All In Every Day! All in for our kids and all in for ourselves. We have a very finite window in which to complete our life’s work. Like The Struts say: Don’t let your life be an untold story; Don’t live as an unsung melody.

I’m probably driving the staff nuts (and my family) but I am committing to writing my story everyday and I am committed to Bringing the Fun; Bringing the Joy!

More Cowbell – The Education Edition

MoreCowbell

I Got A Fever

Saw this meme on Facebook a week or so ago and since then have heard “more cowbell” at least three times. The meme is meaningless if you never saw the SNL skit. Hilarious! We were at a field hockey game last week toting our Temple University cowbells when a university administrator standing beside us said, “There’s no such thing as too much cowbell!”

Of course, like most things, I thought about thus statement in the context of education. I know, I’m a nerd. But think about what the cowbell signifies. Cowbells are the joy! When you here a heavy, clapping cowbell you know there is a celebration. A hero in our midst. A fan trying to muster the last bit of energy for his or her team.

Education needs more cowbell!

I have made it one of my goals this school year to bring the joy; bring the fun everyday. When I am having fun and enjoying my work I fell like I am better at my job. People tend to connect more with people who are bringing the enthusiasm to work. It has benefited me to relax the facade of the expected principal and take ‘selfies’ with the kids, interrupt their class to get them a little wound up. The staff seems more at ease when they see the real me and know that when its serious we will be serious. Making connections and building relationships makes it easier when you have to have the unpleasant conversations.

So in education, what is the cowbell?

In my reflection, the cowbell is the times that you relax a little and not only enjoy your job but genuinely enjoy your students.The cowbell is the times that you celebrate the achievements of your staff and your kids. The cowbell is the times that you remember to ask your staff about their families or things you know that are going on in their lives. The cowbell is the sincere, straightforward ‘thank you’ to staff and students for making this place a great place to work. The cowbell is calling parents to tell them their kid didn’t something wonderful.

Cowbells cannot be disingenuous

If you have ever heard a cowbell, you know when you’ve heard it. You know what instrument makes that sound and it is clear and unmistakable. It’s important to keep that in mind no matter what your cowbell is. Everyone knows when they are not hearing a cowbell. They know when you are blowing wind up their skirt.

Does Education Have a Fever?

I don’t know if I have that answer but if it does, I know the prescription!

Let’s Get Gritty

On my summer reading list for 2015 was Mindset by Caroline Dweck. Dweck’s research looked at ‘growth mindset’ vs.‘fixed mindset.’ The book is intriguing and I was disappointed that I had let it sit on my shelf for so long. A colleague had lent it to me and at first blush it seemed rather dry. I was pleasantly surprised from page 1. I would describe the book as ‘easy to put down’ or more appropriately ‘necessary to put down.’ I don’t mean that negatively but it is a book that will cause you to be introspective. When you start reading a passage that you identify as your own personal fixed mind set it startles and frustrates you and you need to put it down to reflect on that trait in your psyche.

The reason for me writing this is that in conversations that I have had I believe many people confuse the growth mindset with grit. Or maybe they don’t and I have a different connotation of grit. Angela Duckworth out of the University of Pennsylvania studies grit at the Duckworth Lab at UPenn. She defines grit as the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. The assumption is that grit is more important in determining success than talent or IQ.

In that definition, grit and the growth mindset are definitely comparable. The growth mindset as defined by Dweck is when people believe that their basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Both imply that success, in any pursuit, requires practice and resiliency. The ability to see one’s mistakes and begin to do the work it takes to remedy those mistakes. The desire to work hard at your craft and to stand up every time you fall.

In Dweck’s book, she mentions General James Stockdale. Stockdale is also a player in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great where he writes about the Stockdale Paradox. Collins described the paradox as accepting the brutal facts of your present reality but maintaining faith that you will prevail in the end. Stephen Covey’s ‘Sharpen the Saw’ draws on a similar mentality: Stay active in physical, social/emotional, spiritual and mental self-renewal. All of these writers/psychologists have hit upon the same notion, becoming an overnight success takes a long time and a lot of work. Malcolm Gladwell attempted to quantify becoming an overnight success in his book Outliers. By his estimate it takes about 10,000 hours of work to become incredibly successful at anything.

That is the background of where I am coming from today. The notion that hard work is important and, despite your limitations, with a little talent or at least average intelligence, anyone can be a success. I love the idea but this is where our roads diverge. One characteristic that isn’t mentioned is that all people don’t come from the same socioeconomic condition. I know there are plenty of examples of people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps but the reality is that many more don’t even have bootstraps. In Dweck’s book she compares the fixed mindset of Sergio Garcia to the growth mindset of Tiger Woods. A great comparison but both of them were born into opportunity. Can we even imagine the amount of talent, creativity, intelligence that never gets the opportunity to work hard? Those whose long term goals are to survive. Those whose brutal facts of reality have crushed their faith and optimism. How many talented, intelligent, athletic people use up there 10,000 hours caring for sick children or parents, working extra jobs to feed their family, searching for a place to spend the night? I agree with Dweck and Duckworth and Stockdale and Covey but some people use up their resiliency just trying to survive.

This is where I believe that public education is exceptionally important. I believe that schools are one of the only mechanisms that are readily available to break the chain of lost opportunity. Schools need to be the places where talents are recognized. Schools need to be the places where students’ experiences are broadened. Schools need to be passionate about helping to break the chain. We have to be able to be a place of respite for the weary. A place for empathy and a place for caring.

As we begin a new school year please remember that hard work, resiliency, optimism are important. We should be careful though to not assume that everyone comes to the table with the same experiences and the same opportunities. While mindset and grit, resiliency and practice lead many to be successful, many need to have their basic needs met first.

I’ll end with this Tweet for the Blunt Educator: