Friday, September 29, 2017

Administrators!! Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Every year, the Principal’s Office participates in a 360 evaluation process.  An online performance survey is sent to the faculty and staff on a random administrator for feedback.  The survey is anonymous and asks various questions about our communication, leadership, and ethical character.  Last year, someone wrote on mine:

“Jen might benefit from teaching a class at Brebeuf, as her more regular encounters with students in the classroom could give her a whole new appreciation of the teachers she evaluates, as well as these teachers’ unique challenges in the classroom”

This statement really stuck with me.  This is a very fair suggestion but I didn’t know how on earth to make it happen.  And then we had no teacher for our Newspaper Publications course.  Okay anonymous commenter – challenge accepted!

**side note – I have never taught Newspaper Production in my life.

Tweet by @jdferries

Going back into the classroom, albeit for one class, was the best decision I’ve made since leaving the classroom 10 years ago.  I work with bright, talented, witty students in a hard-core project-based learning environment.  We use industry standard software (InDesign), write in various formats (news, op ed, sports, reviews), podcast, engage in social media, and all the great ed tech, student-centered buzzwords I’ve been writing on evaluations to others for years.  The class is led by student editors who do the heavy lifting of daily routines.  We have a large, open classroom functioning much more like an old-fashioned news room.  

And some days … it kicks my middle-aged butt.

Eight weeks in to the school year I’ve learned:

Living in a bell schedule again is hard
Every administrator I know accepts being late to meetings just happens.  Guess what?  You can’t be late for class!  Those teenagers will call you out faster than your own mother!  Your school have a tight tardy policy?  Just try and write up a 15-year-old for being late to class the day after you yourself was late…. Not cool.

Changes in the schedule really do mess things up
As administrators, all kinds of great ideas walk into the office that will disrupt the school day.  I fall under the “Let’s do it! What a cool experience that will be!” bandwagon.  And maybe it is worth it – but I have learned the hard way that too many altered schedules (and last minute changes) really is frustrating for classroom teachers and students.  We need to do better at discerning our somewhat whimsical time shifts.

Online grading is time consuming
I now know the joy of watching the spinning wheel of death while the online grade book tries to load.  It’s real.  It’s frustrating.  Teachers have a right to complain.

Designing meaningful lessons enhanced with technology is hard too
I teach a tech heavy course with a seriously concrete product at the end… and I have trouble sometimes integrating technology in meaningful ways.  If your school is like mine and incorporates a lot of walkthroughs – seeing deep integration is not going to happen every moment of every day.  Deal with it.

Kids surf the web every chance they get
Just like adults do in staff meetings J If your school’s evaluation has any check box about 100% of students being on task with their technology – delete that now!  I actually am fine with a little surfing – it’s natural and gives everyone a little break to reset.  I do step in when it’s causing a ruckus (four 15-year-old boys huddled at a desk snickering draws my attention every single time).  Otherwise I let them decide how to best use the allotted independent work time.  Can’t wait until my office mates come through for my walkthrough!
In short – like online trolling – it is so easy to be critical behind the safe walls of an evaluation form.  But the classroom is a real, living, messy place.  I challenge more admins to get back in the classroom, see what it is really like day-to-day and then reflect on evaluation documents and processes.  You will get serious street-cred from your faculty, hone your own skills, meet some really cool young people, and learn a lot about what teaching is actually like now-a-days.  It’s different from the last time you were here – trust me!

And I'm not just talking K-12 here... even higher education is testing these waters!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Faculty Formation: Yes, This Is For All Types of Schools!

One of the great joys of my day-job is running the first and second year faculty/staff formation program.  The good people at Merriam-Webster define formation as “the art of giving shape to something.”   So we meet as a cohort once a month to read, reflect, discuss, articulate, and shape ourselves according to our Jesuit heritage and our Brebeuf mission.

Yes, friends, it’s going to get a little Catholic Jesuit deep here… but the big ideas are still valid in ANY educational setting.  I would even go as far as saying critical to all settings – and quite noticeable when missing.

Claim Your School’s Mission
“Brebeuf Jesuit, a Catholic and Jesuit School, provides an excellent college preparatory education for a lifetime of service by forming leaders who are intellectually competent, open to growth, loving, religious, and committed to promoting justice.” (full mission and core values are here… it’s worth a look).

As my debate teaching husband would say:  Name It (a Catholic and Jesuit school); Claim It (provides an excellent college preparatory education for); Prove It (a lifetime of service by forming leaders); Conclude It (who are intellectually competent, open to growth, loving, religious and committed to promoting justice). 

It Starts With Orientation
I start with our two-day orientation program.  Day One is what I call “The Nitty Gritty” day… how to print stuff, online gradebooks, location of bathrooms, get keys… all that day to day stuff.  Day Two is “Mission and Identity” day.  I start with a brief introduction to the Society of Jesus and Jesuit education.  We then explore and catch new educators up to some of our of cura personalis initiatives (student stress lately) and then send the new faculty and staff off to the Freshman Day of Service activities with our Community Service Director.  Immediately claiming who we are… and how we are operate in our Catholic Jesuit learning environment.  

Formation Cohorts
For two years, all new faculty and staff are required by contract to participate in what we call the Magis Program.  Yes, you heard me… required by contract.  Everyone but Buildings and Grounds (who are welcome but schedules are hard to coordinate).  These cohorts serve two main purposes: they create groups of supportive colleagues in new setting and they act as personal learning cohorts on topics of mission and identity.  The structure of the program starts with information (Context), moves to practical application (Experience), then to Reflection (Retreat), one to deeper dive (Use) and finally to a capstone project (Evaluation).  Whhaaaaa… the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm is the structure of the formation program.  Craziness J

Structure Your Program Based on Your Mission, Teaching Paradigm, or Educational Foundation
Shape the mission of the school through its teachers and staff.  Make the mission alive in all aspects of the workings of the school and watch the awe and wonder begin.  Seriously… and it might even increase test scores!  

Here’s our program at Brebeuf as example.

First semester focuses on larger issues of Jesuit education and history.

Second Semester focuses on practical life in a Jesuit school.  The main objective being taking the theory/history into daily practice.

  • The Classroom/Workplace as Holy Ground
    • “The Classroom as Holy Ground” by Kevin O’Brien, SJ. From America  May 26, 2003.
    • “Unfinished Houses” by John McLoughlin from America July 21, 2014
    • Discussion topics: Church;  Prayer (Individual, Communal, Spiritual Exercises) ; What is Holy Ground
  • Care of the Person
    • “Cura Personalis” by Peter-Hans Kolvenback, SJ.  From Review of Ignatian Spirituality, Number 114.
    • “Care and Concern for Each Individual Person” Excerpt from Characteristics of Jesuit Education (JSEA) page 9 Original found at
    • “Choosing to Care” by Katy Ridnouer.  From the book Managing Your Classroom with Heart 2006 pg 9-18.
    • Discussion topics with Student Panel: Cura Personalis – what it is and isn’t; how care is lived in action

Reflection : 
All faculty and staff are required to participate in the Midwest Province retreat “Ignatian Themes” the summer after the first year of employment.  This is a 2 day retreat.  All funding for travel and registration is covered by the school.

Year Two is a deeper dive into the theory and practice of Jesuit education and the formational documents of the Jesuit Schools Network (formerly Jesuit Secondary Education Association).
  • Context and Reflection on Ignatian Themes Retreat Overview
    • “Four Hallmarks of Jesuit Pedagogy:  Prelection, Reflection, Active Learning, Repetition” by Ralph Metts, SJ.  From JSEA.
    • All of the IPP readings are on the JSN website .
    • Veteran Faculty Speaker

  • Experience
    • JSEA Foundations “The Preamble"
    • Key Questions:
      • What techniques do  you use to install a sense of awe and wonder in your students/interactions?
      • What techniques have you seen another use?
      • What tensions/balance do your students/constituents struggle with?  How do you offer experiences to guide them to an Ignatian response? (see paragraph 11)
    • Veteran Faculty Speaker
  • Reflection
    • “Foundations: Reflections on the Educational Principles of the Spiritual Exercises” by Robert R. Newton.
    • Look at various forms of reflection (Examen, journaling, prayer)
    • Key Questions:
      • Review of Spiritual Exercise and relationship between Retreatant – Director – Creation and how it related to Teacher – Student – Knowledge
      • The purpose of Jesuit Education “the knowledge, the love and service of God.”
      • Why is reflection so key to learning?
      • How do we engage the affect elements of learning?
    • Veteran Faculty Speaker
  • Action/Evaluation
    • Read “A Fire the Kindles Other Fires” from GC 35
    • Culturally Responsive Teaching (see handout from St. Ignatius San Francisco).
    • Key Questions:
      • How do we live this mission in action in our school?
      • How do we live a compassionate response to the world, community, students, families?
      • What frontiers are you called to?
      • Review Ignatian Identity Review and how used to move school to Action/Evaluation
      • Review the Five Steps of IPP Handout
      • Intro the application project for the next 2 months

Participants are then charged to work with a mentor on intentional use of the IPP in their classroom or workspace.  This is the reflection they turn in to “graduate” from the program.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Rethinking Faculty Evaluation and Professional Growth

Full disclosure.... using this post to process an idea.  So if you are inclined to discuss - feel free to comment.  If you work with me  - don't panic.  My ruminations below are all in the idea stage!

Here we go :-)

Our current faculty evaluation system here in Indianapolis is about 10 years old.  In true Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (IPP) fashion, the time has arrived to move into the evaluation stage. Is the process serving faculty needs?  Is the process encouraging the kind of growth we anticipated?   To give you content, our current evaluation program looks like this:

This model is built on the foundations of Marzano, Downey, Wiggins and McTighe.  Through a series of standards and indicators, evaluating administrators and faculty discuss successes and failures in the classroom... culminating in a year end meeting.  Evaluating the process, we find a weakness in meeting needs of new and experienced faculty - both who are lumped in same process.  We find that formal observations and informal walkthroughs work well for early career teachers who are new to our methods and expectations.  The indicators and focused discussion builds a foundation for them.  However, we are not seeing the growth process with mid-career faculty.  Veteran faculty quite frankly know the elements of day-to-day teaching but do not feel challenged to really innovate. In an nutshell, our challenge has become less one of evaluation (Are you doing your job?) and more one of professional growth (How can you better develop your craft?).

As Jesuit educators we a challenged by the 1st Principle and Foundation “…we show reverence for all the gifts of creation and collaborate with God in using them so that by being good stewards we develop as loving persons in our care of God’s world and its development…”  As a public school educator I might have translated this to say “My gifts and interests are meant to be shared and I choose to share with my students so they can grow and care for the world.”  However you interpret – a challenge as an educator is to recognize and articulate professional gifts and limitations.  Once gifts and limitations are articulated, then a professional begins to desire opportunities for growth.  

Great, Jen… but what does this have to do with faculty evaluations in schools??

What if we separate evaluation from growth in our processes?  This is not all my idea… The IndependentSchool Management firm thinks the idea of separating is possible and even preferred. Taking a page from higher education tenure processes - what if we ask the deeper questions regarding life as a scholar?  Can I as faculty articulate my identity as a scholar?  What do I offer to my department/university that is unique to my gifts?  I strongly feel we should be having this conversation in K-12 to focus on growth rather than simple evaluation.

Taking this idea into my school context,  we create an evaluation around the Profile of an Education Educator plus some basic professional expectations to create an evaluation to quickly communicate “meets/does not meet” expectations for employment in our schools.  (For those wondering, Brebeuf Jesuit operates with year-to-year at-will employment agreements).  Maybe it could look like this:

Meeting expectations communicates that a faculty member has a job next year
(barring anything unexpected with enrollment and finances).  With evaluation out of the way, then faculty and supporting administrators could focus on the real work necessary for improving our learning experiences – professional growth.  Setting goals that stretch teaching methods, innovate assessment and just plain energize the classroom away from the fear of “will I have a job if this fails?” So, instead of checking the "do you lesson plan effectively" indicator, I am asking:

  • What is your personal identity and mission as an educator?
  • Why do you hold these values?
  • How do you values support the mission of Brebeuf Jesuit as we develop students God-given talents as a responsibility and act of worship?
  • How do you express your mission within your department?
  • What do you need to bring these desires into the classroom?

Diving into the questions above through a process of self-reflection, dialogue and action might lead to deeper professional growth.  Growth that would encourage my desire that all our faculty discover the classroom as a place of awe and wonder and not just a paycheck. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Student Voice: Maroon Day 2016

On December 7, 2016, Brebeuf Jesuit early admits were invited to a special school day we called Maroon Day 2016.  41 students spent the day with us - visiting classrooms, meeting with upperclassmen and enjoy special activities.

I only had a quick 15 minutes with the students, but I was impressed with their enthusiasm and interest in their education.  The plan was to do a Circle of Voices activity.  Circle of Voices is a brainstorming technique where participants share experiences, thoughts or feelings on a topic.  The trick is, each participate has 2 minutes to talk with no interruptions.  After all have shared - only then can follow-up questions or further stories be told.  The activity is built to encourage all voices in dialogue.

Of course we ran out of time... so I had to shorted the original plan.  But the ideas shared by students were just as generous and honest as I had hoped.  Students were asked:

1. Give 3 adjectives that describe "a good teacher"
2. Share 3 feelings you have about moving on to high school

The answers and lesson plans are in the slide show below.  We will be using this information in our continued discussions on freshman transitions, meeting needs of all our students and what teaching looks like in the 21st century.  I hope you find these responses as profound as I did.... comments welcome!

CLICK HERE for presentation

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Time to Listen to Our Students: Empowering the Student Voice

On November 15, 2016, the ISTE Administrator’s Personal Learning Network (APLN) hosted a webinar on Empowering the Student Voice.  We asked elementary, middle and high school students, along with an undergraduate and graduate student, to reflect on how they use technology in school and what recommendations they have for their administrators.  Boy, were they candid!  You can access the webinar HERE  if you’d like to hear for yourself.

As I am the co-president of the APLN, I’ve been reflecting on what I heard from these amazing students. I would like to note a few of my reflections here on ye ole blog…

The students had a lot to say!  They speak about solving problems and learning from mistakes.  What struck me was their excitement over technology that allows them to compete as if in a game.  The sense of challenge in timed activities or earning badges reminded me that to our younger students, life is a fun game.  They run, throw, climb and create.  Why not tap this inclination in technology such as Kahoot! and Dreambox (both mentioned by name)?

I’ll fully own the middle schooler is my child.  And we talk about technology in education A LOT!  What especially struck me about William’s comments is the frustration with teachers telling students “you are the worst class of 6th graders we’ve ever had.”  His belief that students need experience with technology, but that adults should fully expect students to mess up (or not do the work at all) is right on point.  Students will use technology inappropriately.  They need to learn the social boundaries in a technology enhanced world without physical boundaries.  Digital Citizenship courses are more necessary now that ever!

High School
The academic stakes of school start to gain emphasis with Sophia’s remarks about high school use of technology.  One of the topics she hit upon is the variety of tools used creates confusion for students.  At Brebeuf, we have prided ourselves in allowing faculty to use the tool best suited for the academic content and course objective.  This sounds great for adults, but Sophia’s remarks have me reflecting on how this freedom could be overwhelming for students who already feel pressures of academic rigor and high stakes grades.  Is the primary goal to expose students to the myriad of choices waiting for them around the bend?  Or is the primary goal to create a foundational experience with technology?  Do we expect all students to enter high school ready for freedom or do we build confidence and skills with a slow release into responsibility over the four years?  I am not sure because…

Fallon is an university undergraduate.  Her comments focused on the necessity of comfort with technology to succeed in college.  She mentions watching her friends struggle with course content, online testing and even bill paying because they did not have experiences in their K-12 education to prepare them for the tech-rich environment of college.  In a seemingly opposite recommendation from Sophia’s, Fallon encourages administrators/teachers to offer as many experiences as possible in K-12 to prepared students for university level studies.

Laura Grace was the only student in a truly blended curriculum.  Her courses are mostly online, with some on campus in a traditional classroom setting.  For her, the blended format works allowing her freedom of scheduling, time spent in class and access.

My personal reflections in summary
  • Responsible use of technology does not just happen.  As educators, we must be aware of student cognitive development and create experiences with technology to not only support the curriculum, but that advance a digital citizenship curriculum. 
  • We have to stop throwing tools at students.  From 6th grade to graduate school, the panelist mentioned the need for intentional use of technology to support the classroom.  I heard two different themes on the idea of technology for technology sake… One, much like the old days, students know when a teacher is punting and pulling out the old film-strip in the name of “learning”.  Two, an over-abundance of tools can confuse students.  If anxiety is created because a student is unclear about how to complete an assignment, then the learning stops.   We are in the business of creating welcoming environments, not frustrating students.
  • Finally, we really have to start listening to students as we make decisions.  The basic tenant of business is to know the customer.  We must listen and know our students.  Jesuits would call this context – who are we serving?  What are their needs?  What are their dreams?  Resources, values and goals?  What works best for their learning?  Students, even as young as elementary school, can articulate answers to these questions.  We just have to empower their voices. 

Take a listen to the webinar – I think you’ll enjoy it (link is public and free to anyone).

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Power of Daydreaming

My son was in 1st grade when he came home from school full of excitement.  “MOM!  Today I learned how to dream with my eyes open!!!” To William, the ability to dream anytime/anywhere was the educational highlight of his short life.  He started middle school two weeks ago and so far – he’s still daydreaming and growing in his imagination.

Today on #CatholicEdChat, a thread began on daydreaming.  Admittedly, I overslept (is there such a thing after the first week of school??) and missed most of the thread. But it got me thinking about the power of daydreaming.  Then this happened:

Thus inspired (and renewed by 11 straight hours of sleep) the tweet encouraged me put fingers to keyboard for a quick, rainy day blog post.

St. Ignatius believed in the power of daydreaming.  He used words like imagination, reflection and contemplation.  In his development of The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius challenges the retreatant to imagine “the labors of the journey to Bethlehem, the struggles of finding a shelter, the poverty, the thirst, the hunger, the cold, the insults that meet the arrival of God-with-us.” (a great post on this topic can be found at here). He knew that daydreaming gave us time to change, grow and identify our desires.  More modern educational theorists such as Dewey, Piaget, Egan and Montessori write on cognitive and social growth in imaginative play/study/work.  Our imagination is where learning turns into understanding.  

For me as a Jesuit educator, reflection is where I take all my experiences of the day, allowing them to swirl around my understanding of the world and either fall into place or be discarded.  My daydreams are where I stop inputting new information and begin to play, reflect, mix and match the sounds, images, feelings and actions of the day.  It’s where the pieces fall together.

So why do we criticize students for daydreaming?  Why do we block windows so students will focus on learning?  Why do we cram our teaching with words and more words?  Why must every moment of the school day be scheduled and planned?  Over 20 years ago, Brebeuf Jesuit took the still radical approach of creating Personal Responsibility Time (PRTs) into the school day.  These are 15-40 minute blocks of time for students to take responsibility for their learning.  Some study, some meet with teachers, some play intramural sports, meet as a club or throw a Frisbee around... some sit and stare out the window.  And officially, the earth still spins on its axis.  Students can and should have moments all their own during the school day.

As the new school year begins, I challenge us all to offer times for daydreaming to our students.  And while you are at it, find a little time for yourself to take a breath and let your mind wander.  Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”  Words to dream by.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Competition Pitfall in Discernment vs Decision-Making

Whew!  Didn't expect two months between posts :-)  The good news is I slowed down at work, turned my phone to mute on weekends and actually took some time off this summer.  New faculty/staff orientation is next week, classes start August 11th and today is a day for blogging!

I work in a private school which accepts students from all over the Indianapolis area.  8th grade students and families have a wide array of strong options for public and private schooling in our community.  My own family traveled the path of educational choice when our eldest was an 8th grader.  It was a wild ride for my husband and I since we were raised in much smaller communities with one choice - the local public high school.  I recognize the arguments for choice in education - but choice does add a sense of competition among our schools.  For me, competition is a pitfall of discernment.  It interrupts the process discussed in my previous post and places barriers to the open exploration of ideas.

Discernment vs Decision-Making

In a brief, over-simplistic nutshell, decision making occurs when context understanding and reflection is over-looked.  Decision-making happens quickly.  Discernment takes time.  Decision-making is often from above, by those with little to no relationship with the people affected.  Discernment is relational - it takes place in dialogue with those affected.  Decision-making occurs without reflection (I personally use the term prayer but am using reflection for the secular audience).  Discernment occurs in time spent in reflection, reviewing feelings toward options and sitting with feelings of a choice made.  Decision-makings assumes a good choice and a bad choice.  Discernment assumes all choices are good but one may better lead to growth. And ultimately discernment is about growth toward a deeper relationship with God/Truth/Students. Discernment is about fulfillment. Competition leads to decision-making.  Collaboration leads to discernment.

How Competition Creates Barriers

In Phase One, competition taints the context setting process.  Ideally, discernment begins in a balanced understanding of the needs of an individual or in this case school community.  "Well, High School West is doing it so we have to in order to attract students" is not context.  Context is the social, racial, emotional, historical, economic, gender, mission-focused foundation of the unique school community.  The moment a school cannot identify their context - their unique place in the educational system - discernment fails and decision-making occurs.  Competition assumes comparison to defeat the other - not movement toward fulfillment of personal gifts.

In Phases Two and Three, the main threat of competition is its influence on experiences via fear of failure.  A school will not consider all options open if competition is fierce - whatever the prize.  Educators complain that students will not take risks for fear of a lower grade but how many of us administrators do not try innovative approaches for fear of market rejection?   Administrators will second-guess themselves for days - eventually putting off any forward movement because of doubt.  Paralyzing the process of discernment.


Collaboration encourages sharing to strengthen the larger community as opposed to defeating the other.  Collaboration assumes all in community can and should grow.  Collaboration hopes for individual strengths to contribute to improvement for all.  I would agree collaboration across schools supports discernment in all areas mentioned above: by taking time, occurring in dialogue, attention to emotions and assumption of good.  An example of school community collaboration landed in my email this morning.  A neighboring (and to be honest - main competitor for enrollment) asked several of us if we would like to collaborate in a professional development opportunity.  They wanted to commission a well known, national speaker on tough conversations and wondered if we would all like to split the cost and learn together.  The resounding YES was cried by all.  Here is a great first step in discernment via collaboration.  We all have unique context - but are willing to work together for an experience that may (or may not) meet a need felt throughout our schools.

To wrap up my afternoon wandering thoughts...

As this new school year begins, keep asking yourself if you are decision-making via competition or discerning via collaboration.  Sometimes decision-making is called for but visioning and leading requires much more time in discernment.  I mentioned on Twitter today that innovation happens in times of reflection and quiet.  We administrators don't get a lot of that kind of time... but we must find ways to make time for discernment if we want our schools to move forward in support of our students and families.