The Wisdom of Students Part II: A perfect school

sciencejpgIn my previous post I described an English assignment that had students reading about education and educational research and then designing the perfect school.  I was happy to serve as a panel member, asking questions and giving feedback as appropriate.  While the names and architecture varied quite a bit, there were similarities across all presentations that seem to indicate general student (at my school) consensus for what makes a good school.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t too different from the school they already know.

Fairness in grading

The idea of fairness in grading took several different forms, although almost all of them were based on the letter grades and 100 point scale that students are used to.  Two groups proposed mandating teacher collaboration time with the specific goal of aligning curriculum and instruction so the learning and grading were the same no matter what teacher you had. (Learning is my insertion – their concern was really fair grades).  They all still had the grades based on the 100 point scale and A-F, however – we are behind in communicating with them.

Outside classroom

Without necessarily recognizing that this idea is a privilege of our Northern California climate, all of the groups but one suggested some form of design that allowed them to be outside more.  Two of the groups suggested outside classrooms that would be “checked out” by teachers like computer labs are now.  It was heartening to me after hearing so much hoopla about students being plugged in to the point of not attending at all to their environments that the students longed to be outside more.  This idea has even gained some purchase with our parent community – look for the RHS outside classroom coming soon.

Departmental Divisions

All of the groups created self-contained department “areas” within their schools, and none of them talked about integration of disciplines or problem-based learning at all.  One group suggested that there should be a competition among departments for increased pay if students learned the most in that subject.  They understood that one test at the end of the year wasn’t an accurate measure, so they suggested that the teachers could be judged by their peers based on observation and multiple measures (again, my words) of learning.

Physical Education

Surprisingly, several groups did away with PE as a requirement (in California, there is a four semester requirement for high school students), believing that it was a waste of their time and took up space in their schedule that could be used for other things.  I know our school has moved to a more standards-based approach to PE, meaning more time in classroom for students who used to feel some relief of movement during PE each day.  The question is – how do students learn the habits and ideas in the curriculum and get to move each day as well?


It was interesting to me that while the students created circular classrooms, outside access sand some other creative changes, basically the schools they created were the same as they are in now.  In Visible Learning, John Hattie (2009) talks about the fact that school culture is so hard to change because educators have been apprenticed to the way it exists since we were five.  The same can be said for the students who presented to me.  They can understand the problems that exist (i.e. grades are unfair) but are hard-pressed to imagine changes that would represent real differences in school.  This makes evident the need for leaders to focus on changing culture to change long-standing and perhaps outdated ideas of what schools should be.


The Wisdom of Students Part 1: A teacher’s epiphany

UnfairJPEGI received this email from English teacher Steve Hettleman after his AP language students researched education policy and wrote essays about their perfect school.  I served on a panel of experts who listened to the presentations and asked questions.  I will write Part 2 about their ideas next but this email speaks for itself:

“I love when my students make me see things in ways I never considered them before. This from one of today’s Ideal School presentations in AP.

Our current grading practice treats two people who are farther apart in achievement more equally than it treats two students who are closer, even almost identical, in achievement.

“If we stuck strictly to our scales, a student who earn a 79.5% would earn the exact same GPA as the kid who earned an 89.4%, but the kid who earned an 89.4% would earn a completely different GPA from the kid who earned an 89.5%.  In a semester where kids can potentially earn a total of 1000 points, the first scenario says that the kid who earned 99 points more than his peer is closer to that peer than he is to the other peer who earned 1 single, measly point more. (Even if you account for the fact that some of us bump a kid on a borderline grade, the basic fact holds true.)

“In what world other than a school would this make sense? It seems to me that the only reason we translate from a percentage to a letter grade/gpa– hell, the only reason we translate from meeting a standard to a percentage grade in the first place—is to satisfy colleges.

“In essence, we create MORE work for ourselves, and that ADDITIONAL work results in a system that is ILLOGICAL and UNFAIR. This seems to be the definition of madness.”

What do you think about our current 100 point percentage based grading scale?

Next: The students’ ideas on how to make great schools.

Public Reflection is Leadership

reflectionLast Thursday Marin County educators were lucky to have George Couros as a speaker as part of the County District’s series on Innovation and Imagination (thanks to Mary Jane Burke and Raquel Rose for creating the opportunity).  George (if I may be so bold) was one of my first Twitter follows, and I blogged about his blog in my third post ever back in 2011.  On Thursday I was happy to share directly with George how he inspired me, but I also let him know that I pretty much had stopped blogging because I feel like I can’t find the time.  His reply was (and I use the quotation marks loosely), “you have to blog.  Reflection is necessary for learning, but public reflection is necessary for leadership.”

And just like that, the glove dropped at my feet.

When used to blog I was blogging for my classes, with assignments that my teachers gave.  I actually love to write and I love education, so I liked the challenge of maintaining a blog about education.  At that point, however, I was hitting the publish button but I never published in the true sense.  I rarely tweeted my posts and never with any hashtags.  I knew my classmates were reading because they had to, and that kept me honest and trying to make it good, but I most certainly was not reflecting publicly.  As soon as my classes stopped, my discipline waned, and I let that first blog die a slow death.  Subsequently, I started a short blog on my former school’s web page, but that was not deemed appropriate spot for my reflecting on leadership. In essence, I don’t reflect publicly except the odd times in a faculty meeting or with small groups, out loud and in person.

So, George, I’m going to get all meta on you and publicly reflect on public reflection as a form leadership.  Challenge taken.  I have read many, many blogs by educational leaders, so I am ready to try to write my answer to the question: What is the role of public reflection in leadership?


My sister is going through a separation this year and has been reading a bunch of self help books.  She has been talking about Brené Brown a lot.  A lot.  I have been smiling and nodding as I do through much of her self actualizatin talk, but that name won’t go away – I keep hearing it from many different people in many different places.  Finally, as I was clicking down the TED talk worm hole, I ran into Brown’s TEDx Houston talk on vulnerability.  (This video has 12 million views). Her point is in essence that the key to human connections is the ability to be vulnerable. Leaders need to show their own vulnerability as learners if they expect that anyone they are leading will have the courage to try something new, share with colleagues and collaborate.  Not only is blogging as a leader modeling, it is actually reflecting to make adaptations in leadership strategies.  And here, I leave myself vulnerable by showing a Brené Brown TEDx Talk in my blog:


Doug Reeves defined seven dimensions of leadership, visionary leadership being one.  However, Reeves cautions, “Visionary leaders are not grandiose, as their visions are more likely to be the blueprints of the architect than the uncertain and cloudy visions of the dreamer.”  A public reflection is also a way to convey your vision as a leader by detailing and showing examples of great work that meet you vision, as well as creating a shared vision by interacting with others through comments and co-authorship. In choosing what you write about, how you comment, what media you share, you convey your vision of a school community even if you never state it explicitly. The National Equity Project defines leadership as “taking responsibility for what matters to you.”  By blogging, anyone, first grade student to superintendent, can lead by sharing what matters.

Collective Competition

A blog also allows a leader to engage in collective competition (a term I first heard last Thursday from George Couros).  Leaders can showcase greatness on their blogs and can get others to copy and improve on their ideas by sharing it publicly.  Other examples of collective competition include the #edurivals Google+ community which advocates the “use of #edurivals on Twitter to call out a fellow teacher and see if they can TOP THIS.” The multidimensional relationships created by public blogging allow for learning from the interactions with others, building on each others’ successes.  Couros points out that every time you post a blog about an idea and a colleague comments, you are in a sense getting free consultancy to make your idea better.


Spending three hours in the presence of such a real, creative, funny, and energetic educational leader was inspiring, as was the collegiality in the room and continuing on Twitter since (#mcoe).  (For a great summary of all that George covered, see Eric Saibel’s post). I’ve said it here before – and I’ll say it again.  I am re-committing to blogging as a necessary and important part of my leadership.  I hope my colleagues near and far will continue to challenge me to be my best.

What are your ideas about learning and blogging?


A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of working with my friend and colleague, Eric Saibel, to give a workshop to teachers and administrators from Marin County about how to use Twitter.  This made me think about my journey with Twitter, and consider the turning point when I went from skeptic to believer.

I signed up with Twitter early on – back when many of us were completely unsure of how it was going to be used.  I Tweeted a couple of times – things like “I love ice cream” and “My kids are driving me crazy.”  I never could figure it out and abandoned it in favor of other Social Media – mostly Facebook.  When I went back to school, my professor assigned the creation of a Twitter account as a class requirement, although even then I stepped in meekly.  Here are some of my first Tweets:


What turned the corner for me was the ASCD conference that came to my neck of the woods in March, 2011.  That was my first experience with the hashtag that allowed me to follow the whole conference no matter what session I choose, and I experienced the in-session back channel for the first time as well.


Needless to say, I was hooked.

The next exponential growth that occurred was this fall at #edcampmarin, where I met some folks face-to-face, and connected with many others digitally.  Through this extended network I have been able to push my thinking and learning beyond the boundaries of my own small district.  I am now networking with local educators who I am able to actually see face to face once in a while, and whose work is close to home, literally, as well as educators from across the globe.

Click here for a great resource for getting started with Twitter.  And find me here: @kfostertweet  See you in the Twittersphere.