School is home

wp-1584280807084.jpgIt has been a surprisingly rich week for me to work in a public high school.  I saw my staff’s dedication in a new light, and I saw what school means to kids with the very real possibility of schools being closed.

Let me say upfront that this is not a piece for or against closing schools.  My school is in learning and preparation mode: we’re preparing for schools being open with low attendance, or schools being closed—and in both cases, the need for supporting students and families at home.

A week ago, as coronavirus awareness started to spread, a few students asked giddily, “Is school going to be closed?” Continue reading

All figured out

Jeffrey Zeldman NYCWhen I was a first-year teacher, I thought my second year of teaching would be unimaginably easy.  By year two, I reckoned, I’d have it all figured out: a year’s worth of lesson plans and perfect systems for grading and classroom management.  As a result, I’d have all kinds of free time on the weekend.

Of course, that wasn’t the case.  Sure, a few things were easier, but every year brings new kids, new ideas to try out, and new “asks” of educators.  And then there’s simply the pursuit of excellence: as a teacher, Sundays were about reading over student work and planning.  I learned to be more efficient, but I spent the same amount of time planning because I was always learning how to teach better.

The same goes for being the founding principal of a school. Continue reading

Why I love 9th graders

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9th graders’ watercolors in art class

I love 9th graders; this week, I experienced again why.

Periodically, I visit every classroom to deliver a quick “check in” or important message.  My visits can be to remind students of an expectation (“Let’s keep our cafeteria clean”), say “Thank you” for an exemplary behavior, or reinforce a value we’re teaching, like persevering through a challenge.

Our building had recently had a rash of false fire alarms being pulled by students from other schools, causing building-wide evacuations.  To be proactive, I visited classes with my assistant principals to remind students of expectations when we evacuate, and to explain the consequences of pulling an alarm. Continue reading

83 and Entropy

color caos photoThis past August, we celebrated our school’s highest graduation rate ever: 83%.  For us, this was a triumph; the highest percentage before this point had been 74%.  Other things looked good at the end of the year, too: our 9th graders had done well on their exams, attendance increased, and suspensions went down.

This school year, other things have looked promising as well: we started a “hallway countdown” that’s leading to kids getting to class faster, our school is cleaner, and the overall atmosphere seems brighter, more positive.

Yet, as I was bragging about my successes to my leadership consultants Ariel and Shya Kane, they said, “We’re hearing alarm bells when you say, ‘My 9th grade is in great shape.’  Continue reading

Just a fun class

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A class of 2019 graduate’s cap.

The High School of Language and Innovation was founded in 2011, and this year was our school’s fifth graduating class, the Class of 2019.

Each graduating class has been unique in its personality.  They have different quirks and different gifts.  As I planned my graduation speech, I thought, “What make this class special?”

Many answers came up, but one word kept rising above all others, a word I didn’t expect.

When I actually stood up to give my speech, I asked the graduates themselves: “What makes you unique as a class?”  Continue reading

The graduation finish line

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Student artwork at the High School of Language and Innovation.

The path to graduation is different for every student, and so is our approach.
For some kids, we race to keep up with them: they excel in every course, so we look for new opportunities and train teachers to lead advanced courses.
For other kids, it’s a matter of holding their hand: we offer extra tutoring and pair them up with classmates who can support them. We encourage them. Sometimes, these students need a lot of support in 9th and 10th grade, and then turn into great students by 12th grade.
Finally, there are a few kids we drag towards graduation. Often, these are students who are academically ready to enter college, but find ways of failing courses at the last minute. It might be the fear of change and leaving high school forever, or maybe just needing some attention. For example, a student who has passed all required exams and courses might do everything they can to fail their last semester of gym.

Continue reading

We want a mascot

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One of the students’ illustrations for a mascot: a panther.

I’m always fascinated by what gets kids excited about school.

Take a 12th grade student in my school, Rebecca.*  Rebecca is known for a sweet smile and enthusiastic participation.  However, at some point this year, everything got cloudy for her: nothing in school was fun or exciting.  A few teachers told me that she might have had a falling out with some friends, hence the blue outlook, but Rebecca wouldn’t tell us what was bothering her.

A few weeks later, I got an email from Rebecca and some of her classmates: Continue reading