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.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Old School Discernment in the Digital Age

I get asked a lot about decision making in my job.  As an assistant principal, I can go from hiring to student conduct to event set up to state reports in a matter of 10 minutes.  While I am in no ways a perfect decision-maker, I have learned a few things over the years and most recently in Ignatian Leadership Seminars.  This post is built off a webinar I recent gave via the ISTE Connects Professional Learning Series (ISTE members can find the free webinar here – sorry about the pay wall folks). 

Old school discernment holds up quite well in the digital age.  While we may be making decisions about 1:1 programs, 3D printing, virtual reality or interactive screens, the process of decision-making via discernment holds.  As a Jesuit educator, discernment for me comes out of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. The elements of Ignatian Discernment are:
  • A choice between two or more “goods” - discernment requires smart options 
  • The process is dynamic - discernment requires freedom of action and reflection
  • Feelings matter – trust those feelings of excitement, fear, calm, anxiety
So what does this look like in a 21st century example?  In 2009, the technology team at Brebeuf Jesuit began to discern what a 1:1 program at the school would look like.  Feel free to peruse old posts on this blog as to the details – but in a nutshell:

  • No matter what was chosen (Bring Your Own Technology, single-platform, continuation of carts) the priority was the student learning experience.  The choices could all work – and indeed had in many schools.
  • The discernment process ended up taking 2 years.  The time was filled with conversation, surveys, workshops and pilot programs.  At times, one option would outweigh another and the school created “what if we….” trials to see the real life experience of a choice.  Reflection allowed us to choose what was best for our students.
  • Oh the feelings – anxiety, resistance, enthusiasm, excitement were all handled respectfully.  The whys behind the feelings were considered. Many a digital aged initiative has failed because administration did not respect or address the feelings of those affected by the change.
So big picture discernment is about the choice between good choices, accepting a dynamic experience and attention to feelings.  What does the process look like in the details of digital age decision making? 

For me, the process looks something like this:

Phase One – Setting the Context
  • Identify the need to be addressed as concretely as possible
  • Gather all necessary information – data, interviews, sample products  
At this point, the team has a stated decision based on a need for change, choices between goods and is ready to move into an experiential phase. The catch here is detachment.  Change-makers must remain open to options and remain flexible at this phase.  Attaching oneself to any single choice will derail the process.

Phase Two – Experience
  • Evaluate advantages and disadvantages of choices – this may involve pilot programs, test groups, visiting another school. 
  • Test reasoning with self and others - now is the time to play with alternatives.  “What if we….”  “What would our school look like if….?”  If you have a school board or colleagues in the field, ask them to review your plan.
Again, remaining detached is key.  At this point, you may see “camps” in your decision-making team.  People start to become attached to a side and may stop listening.  The team leader should feel comfortable reminding the group to remain detached.

Phase Three – Deciding to Decide
  • Make a tentative decisions – For thee record not making a decision at this time is in fact a decision.  Maybe the context and experience phases have shown it’s not a good time to change.  That is an acceptable decision.  Some tentative decisions are easy – the best choice has made itself clear along the way.  Sometimes the tentative decision is fraught with anxiety.  Listen to that anxiety.
  • Live with the tentative decision for a set period of time.  This is the infamous “let’s sleep on it” stage.  What feeling arise in the decision?  If anxiety – why?  Are the reasons a deal breaker or feelings that can be lived with?  If excitement – why?  How does the team transfer that excitement to a larger group?
  • Finally, confirm the decision even if the team is not 100% on board.  Consensus is tricky business, but if the discernment process has been given time, consideration and detachment the group is ready to move.
Thankfully, good decisions show some signs along the way.  A good decision leads to movement.  When the team starts easily talking about next steps and the fun of the process, you are on the right track.  A sometimes difficult criterion in strong hierarchical groups is discernment made in freedom.  Good decisions happen outside of mandates, fear or reactive situations.  A good decision involves all affected by change.  All voices feel heard along the way, even if the decision was not made in their favor.  Finally, a good decision spirals a school to deeper knowledge.

For Brebeuf Jesuit, our 1:1 BYOT decision quickly engaged faculty and students in the possibilities it opened up.  Because 1:1 grew out of student and classroom needs, the ownership was in the hands of the learners, those who would use the technology day after day.  And over the years, this one decision has guided us in curriculum review, classroom redesign and new teaching practices.  We’ve learned a lot!  And grew as a learning community.

This is a rather long post so thanks for sticking with me!  More posts to come as I continue to gather ideas on pitfalls to avoid and conversation starters.  As always, comments welcome below!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Cura Personlis in Unexpected Places

It’s state reporting season in Indiana these days.  As a private school offering the Indiana State diploma and accepting voucher funding, we are responsible to collect, format and report various data points regarding students, faculty and course offerings.  I have written before of my feelings about big data… my feelings haven’t changed.  The lesson in frustration of state data reports is still strongly in favor of “data is only as good as the human inputting it” … but this week, I have to admit, something rather remarkable occurred.

You all can read ad nauseam about the woes of the ISTEP exams in Indiana.  Last week, I was working on the TL report (or Testing Label report for those of you not in the know).  Data requested includes students with testing accommodations/special needs.  None of this is particularly interesting… but the data collection method turned a corner of cura personalis I did not expect or anticipate.  I called a meeting of Academic Counselors and Learning Center Faculty to fill out the spreadsheet.  We ended up talking about each individual student needing accommodations, updating one another with recent evaluations, checking in on student who may need additional care and generally enjoying one another as professional educators.  This process took all of 25 minutes – but the outcome was way beyond another spreadsheet. The conversation, dare I say colloquy, created in the group a companionship for the benefit of the young people in our care.  The conversation created a companionship for students as individuals, in light of care and consideration for their lived potential. 

In 2007, Fr. General Kolvenbach gave a speech on cura personalis (care of the person) where he calls the listener to “that which leads us ‘more’ to the end for which we are created”.   If as educators, we truly answer the call to develop men and women for and with others, shouldn’t we too find those moments for others in our daily roles in the trenches?  Times where we are surprisingly present for another – even in state data reporting.  The awe and wonder for once directed at moments of connection and not the spreadsheet on the screen.