Things I Know 224 of 365: Ownership matters

And I would argue the second greatest force in the universe is ownership.

– Chris Chocola

“He needs to get buy-in,” someone in class said today as we discussed a case study of a school where those in charge were failing to get all teachers swimming in the same pedagogical direction.

From there, the room was flooded with off-hand mentions of “buy-in.”

Some agreed, some advocated the opposite of buy-in and argued the use of administrative power instead.

I sat thinking for a while.

By the time I raised my hand, class was running short on time and many other voices needed heeding.

What I wanted to say was this:

If buy-in is your goal, if it is what you are shooting for as you advocate change, you are working toward something less shimmering, less amazing than what you imagine when you put your dreams to bed.

What I wanted to reference, as my access was sleeping in my bag, was the idea of ownership vs. buy-in.

I’m not certain when, but a few years ago, I started noticing buy-in as a main descriptor in conversations around project formation. Whether it was planning professional development or building units of study for students, people were worrying about buy-in.

“I like this project. I’m just worried about how I can create buy-in with my kids.”

“This is a great approach, and I’d love to take it to my faculty, I’m just not sure how I can get buy-in with my teachers.”

It came up so often that it started to permeate my thinking.

“A bunch of people are talking about ‘buy-in,’” my brain kept saying.

Enter ownership.

I honestly can’t remember who it was, that pointed out to me a distinction that has doused my thinking in intellectual kerosine ever since.

When making change, when starting the new, when shifting thinking; it is ownership toward which we should work, not buy-in.

Henri Lipmanowitz, former chairman of Merck International and board president of the Plexus Institute, draws a line between “buy-in” and “ownership.”

“Your implementation will inevitably be a pale imitation of what it could have been had you been an ‘owner’ instead of a ‘buyer-in’…” Lipmanowitz writes.

I have trouble disagreeing.

When thinking about larger educational policy or thinking about the workings of my classroom, ownership means more than buy-in.

If the system is working, we work toward ownership.

If ownership is established, I do not need to become a salesman.

If ownership is established, I do not need to worry about customer relations down the road.

If ownership is established, I am not in an idea alone.

If ownership is established, it will take more time.

For the latter, Lipmanowitz has a counter argument. To those who argue the involvement of all players at the inception will take time, he responds, “People that are affected will inevitably be involved.”

The difficulty for the classroom and for the shaping of policy or systemic norms is the paradigmatic norm of time allotment as incremental.

I’ll design the unit.

I’ll take time to show it to my peers.

I’ll explain it to the students.

I’ll teach it.

They’ll have questions.

I’ll answer them.

We’ll struggle as they work to buy my vision.

We’ll get to the learning…

Lipmanowitz’s believe (and mine) is based around the assumption that spending the chronological capital at the outset to insure ownership will smooth the road later on.

“In complex situations,” writes Lipmanowitz of the concept of ownership, “it is the only one that is likely to generate superior results. It requires giving people space and time for self-discovery.”

That’s tough.

That’s worth it.


Things I Know 187 of 365: Be nice and we’ll work hard

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping him up.

– Jesse Jackson

A friend recently planted himself firmly behind the idea that effective teachers are the most important factors in student success. In the same breath he said he wasn’t one of those guys to praise teachers and call them the salt of the earth. He works to support kids, he said, not teachers.

It doesn’t work like that.

The two aren’t separate.

If we want healthy schools, places of learning enlivened by vibrant and curious people dedicated to being the best versions of themselves, the systems must support and value all members of those systems.

My morning cup of coffee is better when my barista and the coffee bean farmers in the fields are treated with decency and respect.

I cannot be surprised by a reticence to praise and support teachers when the rhetoric of education paints them so largely as deficient, lazy, undereducated hacks.

Who would dare praise teachers?

Sure, you praise the teacher you know, the cousin or friend of the family who is going into the classroom. They are great. But teachers, in the general sense? No thank you.

Tell teachers the majority are performing poorly and you can’t be surprised when students are performing poorly. I wonder sometimes how many teachers are doing worse right now because they’ve read or heard the rhetoric of education leaders bemoaning the poor quality of teachers.

My friend told me he’d visited a number of classrooms on a single day, to check up on good teaching. Of the 50+ classrooms he visited, not a one held good teaching. Not a one held a teacher at the time. His evaluation was based on whether standards were posted and other measures of the classroom walkthrough. Choosing not to challenge the evaluation, I asked a question I’ve asked here before.

“So, you can name at least 50 bad teachers. Can you name 20 good ones?”

He liked the question and thought I was making his point for him.

I was not.

My point was something else. Too many people are doing well for there to be fewer than 20 effective teachers for every 50 or 60 ineffective teachers.

“All students can learn,” is a popular bumper sticker of regressive education reformers. Pronounced as though a new idea that, once realized, solves so much.

I don’t disagree with it. I question the next ten words.

So long as we’re putting out truisms and bumper stickers to rally behind, let me try one. Let me try one that, coupled with the idea that all students can learn, would mean a sadly revolutionary way of thinking in education.

All teachers can teach.

And, yes, I’ve got my next ten words.

Things I Know 179 of 365: Not all systems need disrupting

We’re flying in a Lockheed Eagle Series L-1011. Came off the line twenty months ago. Carries a Sim-5 transponder tracking system. And you’re telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?

– Richard Schiff as Toby Zigler in The West Wing

I think the man across the aisle from me wants our plane to crash. Just before takeoff, when the flight attendants were announcing the need to power down all electronic devices, I saw him select a playlist on his iPhone and slip the phone into his pocket.

A few hours into our flight and he’s still sitting across from me, still listening to his music…and we’re still in the air.

My phone is off, in my pocket.

It will stay there because I have been told that is where it should be.

Thirty minutes later, we’re still in the air, and guy-across-from-me is still listening to music on his phone.

It strikes me as counter to my nature that I don’t follow the evidence and have my phone out during the takeoff and touchdown.

I admit it seems highly unlikely that my phone, my Kindle or my iPod would take down this 757. If that were the case, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to have them on the plane in the first place.

But I don’t know.

And that’s the key.

I don’t understand the system. Aviation, engineering, electronics – all these are outside the areas of my expertise.

In this system, I have an amazing amount at stake. I am thoroughly invested and committed to its success.

Entire sub-systems and interactions are beyond my understanding. Thus, I keep my mouth shut. If I decided to study aeronautics, become familiar with everything involved in the process of moving a plane from one side of the country to another, then would I have a space to speak up.

When my life and the lives of others are on the line, it’s probably best not to disrupt a system I do not understand.

Things I Know 148 of 365: I have an idea to save Philadelphia’s kindergarteners

Give a year. Change the world.

– City Year

How about we don’t cut full-day kindergarten?

Instead, what if we saved money, innovated the system and began a trend of civic responsibility for young adults in Philadelphia that could serve as the national model.

I’m as big a fan of scare tactics as the next person, but what if the School District of Philadelphia worked to look more like a leader in the time of fiscal crisis, rather than a college freshman signing up for every credit card offer to arrive in the mail?

Cutting half-day kindergarten is a bad idea. It sounds inherently bad when you say it aloud to those with no obvious ties to education.

Then add to that to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s report that we know full-day kindergarten is better:

Research has shown that children in full-day kindergarten demonstrated 40 percent greater proficiency in language skills than half-day kids, said Walter Gilliam, an expert on early-childhood education at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Combining clinical evidence with that feeling deep in your gut should be all you need to realize cutting full-day kindergarten is a bad idea.

This still leaves the shortfall of $51 million as a result of Gov. Corbett’s elimination of a $254 million blacken grant.

Here’s where the innovation comes in.

We cut Grade 12.

To those seniors who have earned enough credits to graduate and/or passed the state standardized test, we allow for the opting out of G12.

Though I couldn’t locate exact numbers by grade, the School District of Philadelphia reports 44,773 students in its high schools.

According to School Matters, SDP has a total per pupil expenditure of $12,738.

Now, if 5,000 of the roughly 45,000 high school students in Philadelphia opted out of their senior year, it would save the district $63,690,000 – almost $12.7 million more than the block grant cuts.

I get that the math is hypothetical, but bear with me.

Not every student is ready for college at the end of their senior year. Even fewer will be ready at the end of their junior years.

Enter the gap year.

Shown to provide students will helpful life experiences as well as a sense of direction once they enter college, a gap year between high school and college would benefit Philadelphia students.

Rather than setting students free to wander aimlessly for that year, the SDP could partner with AmeriCorps, City Year and other organizations to help place Philadelphia graduates around the city in jobs that will invest their time in improving Philadelphia.

The standard City Year stipend would apply, though I’m certain City Year hasn’t the budget for a sudden influx of volunteers.

The SDP would need to show a commitment to sustainable change and invest the money saved by the opt-out program into helping to pay for volunteer stipends.

Ideally, those same graduates would be placed in kindergarten classrooms around the city, helping to reduce student:teacher ratios, providing successful role models and perhaps inspiring more students to move into the teaching profession.

Once students completed their one-year commitment, they would be eligible for the AmeriCorp Education Award to help pay for college tuition.

The idea is admittedly imperfect.

It is not, however, impossible.

It could save full-day kindergarten, reduce costs to the school district, move graduates to invest their time in their city and help lessen the cost of college for Philadelphia graduates.

As an added benefit, such a move could turn the negative press the district’s received for proposing bad policies for children into positive press for creating positive, community-enriching change.

Things I Know 122 of 365: I avoided the educational flea market

You can tell a lot about a person by what they sell at their garage sale. What kind of books they read, what kind of music they listen to …

– Wynetta Wilson

People are selling their old junk across the street from my coffee shop. Twice a year, whatever secret society organizes flea markets brings 100+ stalls to set up shop around Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary. I’ve walked the stalls a few times in years past, careful each time to leave my money at home.

I don’t need more junk.

In fact, I need less junk. My impending move to Cambridge is helping to hammer this point home.

As is usually the way with my brain, home-thinking has seeped into school-thinking.

At the beginning of the year, I told my G11 students we’d be conducting an experiment with our class reading for the year. Rather than whole-class text studies, students would have the choice of reading whatever they wanted.

As an experiment, I explained, this approach would be subject to refinement.

That’s how teachers collect junk. We try new things. They don’t work. We try all new new things. Rinse. Repeat.

The reading of books of choice was a bit rocky.

My initial plan was to have students meet in small groups with other students who were reading texts of the same genres.

They would do this once a week and report out on what they heard.

I hadn’t planned for just how many genres and shades of genres exist.

Coordinating genre groups each week as students of various reading speeds moved from one text to another proved a logistical nightmare.

I was making work for little return.

I could have given up, but instead decided to revise.

Students would meet in small groups once a week, but group composition would vary from teacher-organized to student-organized to random.

It worked much better.

As an unintended consequence, the depth of discussions was improved as well. Students were working to make connections across texts and challenging the assertions of those connections.

Experiment = Success.

Not so much.

By the end of the second quarter, I needed more information and evidence of student learning. The summaries of small group conversations were helpful in highlighting the ideas that came up in organic conversation, but I had no record of other key concepts that simply didn’t get discussed.

It certainly would have been easy at that point to junk the experiment and try something new. That would have disrupted class and meant adopting wholly new structures and procedures. Instead I sat down with my G11 counterpart and our two literacy interns from UPenn.

I explained the problem and we collaborated to find a solution.

Using Google Docs, we would create a template spreadsheet that each student would access and create a copy of. Each column of the spreadsheet would be headed by a pertinent piece of literacy knowledge: theme, symbolism, point of view, setting, etc.

Once per week, the class would fill in a new row of their spreadsheets based on the reading they’d done since the previous week. Five categories were identified as needing to be filled in each week. For the remaining columns, students could choose three each week without doubling up on a category until they’d contributed to each one. By the end of the cycle, I’d have evidence of students’ learning across each assessment anchor identified by the PA state assessment.

These self reflections would be completed in addition to the small group summaries.

I needed a third component as well.

Asking students to reflect on their reading through writing alone wouldn’t give me a clear enough picture of what they were learning and experiencing as they read. Similarly, passive reflection wouldn’t push them to think more deeply the next time they picked up their books.

Back to Google Docs, we created another template spreadsheet.

This one included the standard identification number, the text of the standard and a series of discussion questions about each standard respectively.

My intern, my student assistant teacher and I split the class into three groups and planned to sit down one-on-one with the students in our groups to discuss whatever they were reading. We’d focus on a few discussion questions during each meeting and record their answers and our notes in successive columns headed by the date of our discussions.

These one-on-one conversations helped to model what it looks like when we talk about reading, and also gave us the chance to push students’ thinking on the topics being discussed. If a student offered only a description of the physical space within a plot when discussing setting, we could probe more deeply to generate a better understanding of how readers can think about plot.

The small group summaries, individual reflection logs and one-on-one discussions helped to identify the junk already present in the experiment – the empty space. Rather than calling the approach to reading instruction a failure because of all the things I hadn’t thought to think about, I stopped, sought help from my peers and adjusted course.

As we head to the end of the year, more needs to be adjusted. Implementing such systematic structures in the classroom requires a greater element of planning on my part. In the next version of this approach, I would set a schedule for one-on-one conversations. In the busyness of teaching, they were often the first piece to be pushed off until later.

I’d also do a better job of using the student reading reflection logs to guide instruction. After the first few weeks, it became clear where students were lacking the language to speak richly about some literary concepts. In the next version, I would plan holes in the teaching calendar for drop-in lessons designed to provide remediation as it became necessary.

The approach, unlike much of what is in my basement, wasn’t junk.

Like the stuff in my basement, the difficulty and work inherent in refining this choice-based approach to reading could have meant its discarding at several steps along the way in favor of something newer or shinier.

I’m glad I stayed with it rather than becoming the educational equivalent of the throngs of people picking over junk at the flea market hoping to find that one thing that will make their lives complete.