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Climbing mountains

In case you missed, I climbed a mountain.D1FFB441-CD56-4781-84E0-3DFFE92CB140 I traveled to Tanzania with my dad and brother at the end of June and spend nine incredible days climbing the tallest mountain in Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world: Kilimanjaro.

It was breathtaking – literally. The views were incredibly beautiful and I was short of breath a lot. By the way, when they say it’s “hard to breathe” at high altitudes, they don’t mean inhaling is difficult. They just mean breathing doesn’t suck oxygen into your body quickly enough.

It was exhausting. We walked 30 miles uphill over six and a half days. We were on the trail eight or more hours at least five of those days.  We climbed up out of one and then into and out of two more canyons on one day.  We descended 20 linear miles and 2 vertical miles in a day and a half.  My muscles did not forgive me for a week.

It was inspiring. My dad, brother and I intentionally made it a time of bonding and spiritual retreat. We planned a book together. We sang, told stories and teased each other; we encouraged, hugged and prayed for each other.  We are already talking about what we want to do next.

It was humbling.  Seeing a tree that has stood 15,000 feet above sea level for 180 years will make you rethink your place in the universe. Realizing that entire ecosystems existed on this mountain for thousands of years before any human climbed up to see them fills you with awe.  Considering the difference between impossible and very difficult takes on a new dimension in that environment.  Emptying your guts into the snow and clumsily slipping to slide down several yards of ice will remind you that you are weak.

I meant for this trip to be a metaphor for the uphill climb to restore school libraries. Somehow we have come to accept that it is possible to build strong readers without a healthy school library and have given ourselves permission not to do anything about the embarrassing shape they are in (both the readers we are growing and the libraries they have access to in school).  Over the last couple of months, I have repeatedly heard friends and acquaintances say ‘I could never’ about Kilimanjaro.  And that’s our attitude about school libraries too. Casting off this mindset and healing our libraries is going to be tough. It is foolish to think that naming the problem and reversing decades of decision-making are the same thing.  There will be headaches.  We will probably have the wind knocked out of us.  We will have to stay on the trail for long hours and many days.

But I say it’s worth it. The main reason me, my brother, and my 70-year-old dad all made it to the top is that we decided not to quit before we started. Before we had any idea how hard it would be, we promised each other to keep going until we got to the top – and to help each other get there.  I now promise this: I will not rest until the libraries in my district are all in the shape they need to be.

Thank you SO much to the more than 50 people who contributed to #Kili4Kids. Thanks to your generosity, we raised almost $3,800 for Tuscaloosa City School libraries.  I take these donations as a vote of confidence and as motivation to keep working hard. The funds will go directly to our libraries!

Now the real work begins. I have two invitations.

  1.  Tuscaloosa City School’s library collection campaign, “Strong Libraries, Strong Schools” officially launched on Monday (7.30.18).  We are committed to raising EVERY school library to the “exemplary” level. We don’t have a hill to climb to make this happen, it’s a mountain. It is going to take a few very big donations and LOTS of small donations to make this happen. Visit http://www.tuscaloosacityschools.com/libraries to learn more and to donate.
  2. Tuscaloosa only has 18 of the school libraries in Alabama. Almost all of the more than 1,600 school libraries in our state are in desperate need of help. We ALL need to be doing this work. Start by finding out what state your school library is in. Is the collection big enough (15 books per student)? Is it young enough (average of 11 years or less)? Join the awareness campaign that needs to become a movement: #MyLibraryStory  We can do this but only if we work together.

I am just one guy and definitely can’t do this alone. But I believe that we owe it to the next generation to make school libraries strong. And that we absolutely can. Join me; I’m already climbing!

P.S. If you enjoy pictures and videos of adventures, check out bit.ly/Kili4Kids to catch up with mine.

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Climb Itinerary

Thanks to everyone who is following this quest so closely and for all the well-wishes.

As many of you have asked, here is a copy of our rather detailed projected climb Itinerary I have inserted the dates so that you can have an idea of what we are supposed to be doing each day.

As I have shared, I will not be able to post updates during my climb and am not sure that I will be able to get to wifi before I get back into the country.  At the latest, though, watch for at least one teaser picture when we land late in the day on July 8th in Atlanta.

 

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Kili – 6 days and counting

This post is for everyone who has expressed a personal interest in my trek and in the details of it.

First, background.  I’ve been sharing about this adventure on social media in connection with my campaign in support of school libraries. But my brother and I have had plans for this for a very long time – since before I even knew I wanted to be an educator.  I wouldn’t call myself an outdoorsman in the way you probably think about it but I did spend most of my childhood outside.  Barefooted.  Routinely engaging in “play” that makes gardening and working in the woods seem downright pedestrian.  Matter-of-factly engaging in massively challenging things was one great lesson I learned from my father.  Don’t get me wrong; he’s been training for this like crazy – which is probably a good idea since he turned 70 a couple of months ago.  The point is, Maxey Mens Retreats are a thing and have been for a while. This is just the first one that includes summiting a legit mountain.

Some stats:
Mt. Kilimanjaro is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world at 19,341 feet above sea level.  Of the “Seven Summits” (highest mountains on each continent), it ranks number 4.  However, it does not require any technical climbing skills and is (essentially) an exceptionally strenuous hike.

While the record for fastest ascent and descent was completed in under seven hours, for mortals like us, a much longer journey is recommended.  The primary danger is acute mountain sickness (AMS) – the most dangerous of which is “high altitude pulmonary edema”.  This can be life-threatening but most often results in less severe symptoms many of which are similar to those one could experience with the common flu.  The cause of AMS is typically a climb that is too rapid.  As a result, we have opted for a very leisurely nine-day hike.

We will not be setting any records on this trip, a seven-year-old summited earlier this year (in spite of park rules prohibiting anyone under ten from attempting the summit); my dad will have to go back in 17 years if he wants to set the record for oldest.  On the other hand, this will be a personal best for me and the first of the Seven Summits.  Perhaps this will get me moving towards that bucket list item to do them all.

One of the amazing things about the Kilimanjaro climb is the fact that the mountain has a huge range of temperature zones.  We will essentially experience all four seasons in those nine days.

We will be guided by a group of professional climbers who were highly recommended and have made the accent dozens of times.  All but the last two items on my detailed packing list are ready to go.  With the help of my young assistant, my backpack and duffle are scheduled for packing on Wednesday.  Watch for an update.

 

P.S.  Do you think I have enough socks?

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Subtexts: A postscript in support of stronger libraries

In the first three blog posts in this series, I suggested that an effective focus on literacy must include both the science and the art of reading, that most public schools are woefully under-equipped to produce proficient readers (through the neglect of library collections) and that librarians and the libraries they manage are incredibly powerful but generally forgotten agents to produce the results schools want.

This final post is meant to be an afterward, an appendix or a postscript.  A written “…and another thing!” If you were not already convinced that your school’s library should be stronger than it already is, let me share some reasons why it should be.

As I have already mentioned, funding for libraries has been a mixed bag in my state.  There is funding for a librarian for every school – a commitment better than that of other states.  Funding to maintain library collections has been abysmal for the last ten years. If you have been paying attention, you will recall that our world and society has changed significantly in that time.  Here are just three ways in which conventional wisdom has shifted that should be reflected in our library collections.

  1. Most reasonable thinkers today acknowledge the importance of having access to texts that include protagonists and other characters like the reader.  Even a cursory review of the literary “canon” reveals the fact that the hyper majority of protagonists have been male and white. In the last ten years, the publishing world seems to have finally awakened to the importance of producing texts that feature a diversity of characters that more accurately reflects the diversity of humans likely to read those texts.  The twin shift has been the proliferation of texts by a more diverse range of authors. If schools are truly to prepare students for the world they will live in as adults, the texts to which they are exposed must be as diverse as the humans around them. I have no doubt that your librarian is fully aware of the importance of this issue and has made heroic efforts along these lines.  If the funding available is as limited as it is for the libraries I work with, that effort has probably produced no more than a ripple on that ocean of need.
  2. In the last two or three years, the discussion about the work of schools in my area has finally begun to shirt seriously and systematically aware from elevating test scores to actually lifting student learning.  In other words, I am at last thrilled to be part of work to produce thinkers instead of merely answerers.  In the past I have been absolutely transparent about my position on standardized testing both in the blog and in my professional conversations: during this Age of Accountability, public education made the decision to value higher test scores over more learning.  The failure of that movement is well documented by thousands of scholars and voices in the profession.  It was no mistake that libraries have been starved, marginalized and (in some places) literally abandoned: we were spending the resources that should have been allocated to them on the latest magical solution for better test scores.  So the choice seems clear to me: to truly produce young women and men who are critical thinkers, they need a massively wide range of ideas to think about.  There are simply not enough hours in the day to provide students exposure to enough content in the classroom.  They must have access to high quality, relevant, powerful texts that they select to read.  A healthy library directly supports the core mission of producing engaged, thoughtful citizens. 
  3.  Finally, a study of the history of education in America reveals the explicit purposes for which the education of the young has been set.  Too often in our past, the purpose of school has been the training of the young to fill the role set for them in adulthood – roles heavily pre-influenced by class, race, religion and other factors.  In short, education has been the instrument of control. At the risk of being entirely disregarded as alarmist, let me point out that at many, many points in history a recurring strategy for increasing control on a population has been the wholesale destruction or harsh censorship of books.  If public education simply refuses to prioritize funding for libraries in a way that measurably leads to the slow decay of their collections into irrelevance, how can we in good conscience avoid the conclusion that we are denying students access to a resource absolutely essential to their intellectual and social formation?  Many students do not have access to a library other than the one in their school. By allowing those libraries to fall far below reasonable standards of operation, we undermine the efforts we public insist we are committed to undertaking.  Instead of being instruments of control, our schools and libraries should be catalysts of agency in our youth.  Weak libraries can provide no such support.

And there’s more…  There are probably dozens of other ways in which school libraries should advance the core mission of schools but do not.  I would love to hear your ideas. Above all, do something.  If you can’t solve the entire problem, start somewhere. Our children deserve our action.

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The neglected side of literacy

Warning: this series of posts is likely to offend.  Look away if you don’t want that. If you do read on, give the following claims thought before you dismiss them out of hand. Chocolate is usually good for hurt feelings.

This is the first of what is intended to be a four-part series exploring a pretty fantastic “knowing-doing gap” in public education right now.  We know what is right and have always known it; we just act like we don’t know.  To my shame, while I have striven to live and work by the principles I mean to advance here, I have only very recently begun to advocate for a radical change on this issue.  So I include myself in the “responsible party” category.

Next, a disclaimer.  I am not a literacy “specialist” or “expert”.  I have not been trained by my state or a university in the technical knowledge and skills associated with this area of practice.  I am not a librarian, unless you count the work I do to curate my personal and professional libraries.  But I am a non-stop reader.  I have read the literature.  For years I have read the writing of the professionals from all around the world who have written on this topic.  There are more qualified, more polished and more experienced voices making this case.  But their voices are being ignored, willfully misunderstood or given patronizing lip service by far too many in education.  Perhaps by adding my voice to theirs, I can help make the case for just one more educator who can in turn impact just one student.  That will be good enough for me.

We have a problem with literacy in public education.  We can’t get kids to “read at high levels”.  Scores on all manner of standardized tests consistently indicate that high percentages of students fall short of “proficient” attainment, no matter what that mark is.  Much higher percentages of minority students and students who are poor fall short of these marks.  For skeptics of standardized testing (like me), there is still no denying the fact that loads of students in high schools across the country cannot read at all or read so poorly as to make the distinction irrelevant.  We’ve known the problem for a long time. We’ve been trying to fix the problem for a long time and we haven’t.  

It would be disrespectful of me to suggest that there is a silver bullet for this problem that we have simply refused to see.  Our problem is not astigmatism though, it’s myopia. We have been hyper-focused on just one half of what it takes to become a great reader.  

In this age of accountability, we have focused more and more of our energy on reading instruction.  Individuals more experienced that I am can trace this (inappropriate) narrowing of focus in more detail, but the facts of recent trends in education are clear: we believe that the solution to the issue of poor reading is more and better reading instruction.

Recently, I had the opportunity to serve on an interview panel for a position that requires extensive knowledge and expertise in curriculum and teaching.  One question asked applicants to identify the two most important parts of an effective literacy program.  To my great dismay (but not to my surprise), only two applicants event mentioned books.  Every other applicant focused his/her answer on some aspect of reading instruction.  The significance of their answers was not at all lost on me and mirrors our decision-making at all levels of education: a focus on literacy means teaching students how to read.  This is the science of reading.  It breaks the act of reading and learning to read into its component parts and determines the “research-based” way to execute each part.  It tracks student progress against specific metrics meticulously.  It requires teachers to follow the reading program “to fidelity”.  It believes in the power of the basal reader.

And this part of literacy is not wrong.  There is a science to reading.  We can understand how it works and we can apply that understanding to our work to teach young minds how to read.

The problem is that this part of literacy actively seeks to deny the value of the other side of the coin.  The cult of the science of reading is deeply skeptical of the art of reading.  It demands that students’ “independent” reading be tightly controlled – for their own good, of course.  It insists that students document their reading – through a standardized test whenever possible.  It calls time spent in class on independent reading “wasted” if it is not organized and documented.  But mostly, it starves the art of reading but demanding all the resources.  It needs all the personnel, all the funding and all the time.  It is happy to give stickers and cupcakes and even free books to the kids who find a way to read a bunch anyway.  It even makes a show of promoting a “culture of reading” with special events like reading days – which, by the way, also provide amazing photo opportunities for adults.  But on every other day, it is very specific about how many minutes must be spent on reading instruction.

Because science is easier to quantify and measure than art (whether the results are good or bad), we accede to the demands of the science of literacy.  The numbers look bad so we use other numbers to fight the first set of numbers.  We hire more people.  We buy more programs.  We budget more minutes.  We take more reading tests.  

And nothing really changes because that’s not how reading works.  It takes both sides of the equation to grow proficient readers.

Part II: The Missing Avalanche

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Galactica Actual

October is Principal Appreciation Month.  This post is dedicated to all the amazing principals I have had the privilege to work with as a teacher and colleague.  

The best metaphor I know to explain what it is like to be a principal comes from the show Battlestar Galactica.

In the pantheon of sci-fi television series, Battlestar Galactica must surely deserve consideration as one of the greats.  In case you have forgotten, the series depicts the odyssey of the last remnants of the human race as they are pursued through the universe by a race of humanoid “cylons” they had created. The ragtag fleet of ships is lead by Laura Roslin – who is promoted from Secretary of Education to President (of the human race) when the 42 government officials ahead of her in succession to that position are killed in the initial attack by the cylons, and by Commander William Adama – captain of the only surviving vessel of war: the battlestar Galactica.

Commander Adama’s ship has a squadron of “Vipers” – flying machines that function in space the way fighter planes function in terrestrial conflicts.  The command of military maneuvers is coordinated between the Galactica and the Vipers by radio transmission.  As with naval ships and fighter galacticaplanes on Earth, each has a call sign.  For example, Commander Adama’s son Lee Adama flies under the call sign “Apollo”.  Pilots attempting to communicate with the battlestar address their communication to “Galactica”.  As in “Galactica, this is Apollo.  I have made visual contact with the enemy.”  In a practice that mirrors that of battleships in the United States Navy, a junior officer on the Galactica is the one who operates the radio and speaks to the pilots most of the time.  When they hear from Galactica, it is his voice that comes over the airwaves.  

But he is only the voice of the ship.  When pilots need to discuss something very important, unorthodox or otherwise unusual, they ask for permission to speak to the Commander himself.  They say “Give me Galactical Actual”.  They are saying, in effect, ‘I have been speaking to the voice of the ship but now I need to speak to the ship itself’.  When Commander Adama says “This is Galactica Actual”, he is is saying ‘Go ahead, you are speaking to the ship’.  

When I saw the show for the first time, I was a principal and I made an instant connection to that concept.  You see, psychologically, it is is the same for a principal.  You are the school.  If you are (or have been) a principal, you know what I am talking about.  On the other hand, if you have never been a principal, you can only understand what I am saying theoretically.  To be the principal of a school is to be the school.  Of course, you are legally and professionally responsible for every detail in the school.  But beyond that, your personal identity becomes entwined with the school.  When your school is mentioned in the paper because a frozen pipe flooded the school or because there was a fight at the football game or because test scores were released last week, you were in the paper – whether your name is mentioned or not.  There are plenty of factors that make the principalship a difficult job – an ever evolving set of expectations, pressure to create change quickly, a steady barrage of deadlines and due dates, and an endless stream of decisions big and small that must be made.  The one that is most difficult to understand until you have experienced it yourself though is the psychological weight the job carries.  It is as if you must become the school.  Whether the individual in the office is a great leader or not, the school begins to take on the personality of the principal; and the principal assumes the identity of the school.  Whether it is more accurate to describe it as being the school or carrying the school, it is a heavy task either way.

Metaphors aren’t useful unless they lead to greater understanding.  Here are just a few hints and suggestions to help make this one worthwhile.

Principals:

  • You are your school but you are not alone.  Wear the mantle of leadership loosely.  Build a team that works together.  You do have to be a heat shield to protect the folks around you but they can keep you sane by strengthening your hands for the work you do together.
  • Do everything you can to keep your work out of your home.  If you do not take a single task home, you are still carrying hundreds of people and their problems and needs home on your back.  Don’t make it worse by stealing time from your family or personal time to catch up on paperwork or any other tasks.
  • Keep perspective.  Either your school got along fine for a long time before you came along or it will for a long time after you leave.  Or both.  Education certainly did and will.  You are valuable and important but a healthy perspective (from the lens of history especially) will help you stay grounded.

Educators:

  • When you get frustrated with your principal, keep in mind that they are people too and that this phenomenon I am describing has an impact on how they do the job.  This is not an excuse for poor practice but it might help you understand how to relate to your principal.  
  • Being a principal is not synonymous with having a huge ego.  Admittedly some school leaders appear to be engaged simply in the pursuit of power.  For most though, it is a monumental task to fulfill all the requirements and expectations they face every day.  What looks like ego is often just an attempt to make enough good decisions every day.  
  • On more than one occasion I sat in my office and cried because someone took a few minutes to write me a personal thank you note.  Have you thanked your principal lately?  If not, think about taking five minutes to write a quick note for just one thing he/she does well.  You will make their day (or maybe their week)!

Galactica out.

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Supercell on the Power of Purpose

I play Clash of Clans.

The main reason I don’t often bring that fact up in professional settings is that imagethe game does not make me better at my work.  “I play games” provides common ground with students but not very many adults.  I could make a connection to the power of applying the “rules” of gaming to learning, but that case has been very well made by others already. I see oodles of opportunities for application and professional reflection in many of the in-game features, the psychology of the game and the social interactions it facilitates. Ask me for those insights next time you see me if you are interested.

Supercell is the name of the company that created Clash of Clans. I visited their website today for the first time.  What I read in the section titled Our Story inspired this post.  In the words of a colleague, here are my two “takeaways”.

1.  “…the sole mission of the founders and management [is] to acquire the best talent, create the best possible environment for them, and then get out of the way.”

Is it possible that this approach could work for schools too? What if we spent time hunting down the very best folks, recruited them to be on our team, equipped them for their work and then let them do it?  Supercell leaves no illusion that their employees are free from oversight. In fact, the piece talks about how they “kill” projects that are not working (and how they celebrate their failures and then move on).  But between the point of starting a project and its ultimate launch or abandonment, their very small, very talented “cells” of people “have complete control over their own roadmap.”  Autonomy does not mean freedom from responsibility, high standards, or direction. It does mean the ability to do excellent work by finding the best path. Supercell seems to think that approach is part of what makes them successful.

2. “…the best people … make the best possible impact and nothing [stands] in their way. Everything else, including financial goals, [is] secondary.

Most people would say that the purpose of establishing a company that makes games is to make money. Success is determined by how much money the games earn. Supercell, however, seems to be saying that the only way to be successful is to refuse to be driven by the bottom line.

The measure of the success of a school today is its performance on standardized test scores. We are great at offering endless reasons and rationales for that fact but ultimately “improvement”, “growth”, and “success” are all essentially synonymous with higher test scores. What if we took our cue from Supercell in this as well? What if we began acting like the only way to get test scores up is to stop trying to get test scores up? What if we focused on producing more learning instead?

Public education is not a business and our work is not a game but I believe we have something to learn from Supercell about priorities.

By the way, even though “financial goals” are “secondary” for Supercell, they do just fine in that department too. They take in about $5M (five million) dollars every day.

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